So after all that talk of failures, and a few conversations, I was thinking about the actual GM Intrusions in Numenera, and I got curious. What sort of googlies does the rulebook actually throw out?
The foci are a weird and wonderful array of special abilities, no doubt perfectly suited to display the scope and versatility of the GM Intrusion. Let's see what exciting opportunities, plot seeds and wildcards Monte has chosen to throw in here!
The core rulebook outlines what I think can be considered 47 distinct GM Intrusions across the range of foci. These can, it turns out, be grouped into 5 fairly neat categories.
Things hunt you: your power causes particular types of enemies to hunt you down, be they predators or would-be captors. 4 Intrusions take this form.
Your stuff breaks: your equipment or belongings are destroyed, lost or damaged. 9 Intrusions take this form.
Your power causes chaos: you lose control of your power and it results in bad things happening. 9 Intrusions take this form.
Prejudice: people dislike or actively hate people with your abilities. 11 Intrusions take this form.
You fail: your power doesn't work. 13 Intrusions take this form.
...is anyone else here feeling underwhelmed?
The best of these are the "your special ability makes you a target" options, because these do at least feel like narratively interesting options. However, they also feel like long-term plot rather than something that suddenly happens. I can also see the prejudice ones being interesting occasionally, although only occasionally - very few players want to be constant targets for hatred.
I have to say that most of the others feel actively bad to me.
So there's two issues here, I think. The primary one, which suffuses most of these, is that fundamentally these remaining GM Intrusions boil down fairly tidily to "Hey, that thing you can do? That talent so unusual and definitional that it's fully one-third of your character, and the most interesting third? You aren't actually any good at it." And I think don't think this is good form. I especially don't think it's good form in a game of heroic adventure like Numenera appears to be. Having a player character suddenly prove incompetent at (essentially) the only thing they are specifically good at - their Focus - is undermining the very concept of the character.
Conan the Barbarian doesn't randomly flub his attacks one time in twenty. Spiderman doesn't fall off buildings one time in twenty. Cyclops doesn't accidentally zap the wrong person one time in twenty. Zorro doesn't say something embarrassing and fall on his arse one time in twenty. Lots of things go wrong for them, but they are virtually never a simple failure of skill, and in particular, the talents that define those characters.
I think it's even worse when that failure results in additional problems. Hey, you didn't just fail to command fire, you set this orphanage alight!
Look, one of the keystones of my roleplaying philosophy (wow, I have one? That's mildly alarming) is that reality is what happens in play. That's not a principle or anything, that's how I think it works. The reality of a character, as they feel to the rest of the group and (to a large extent) to the owning player, is derived from the events of the game, not from their backstory or statline. You can have a Shooting skill of 99%, but if you repeatedly fail to hit things you come across as a mediocre shot. You can be a simple warrior, but if you come up with neat ways out of tough situations, you end up as a simple but wise warrior who others look to for leadership. You can be a master of secret knowledge, but if none of it is ever needed in the game you are often functionally indistinguishable from someone without that knowledge.
But this means that "your abilities going wrong" has serious weight. Because now you are not Hyral, the Wielder of Fire. You are Hyral, who sometimes Wields Fire but that one time set an orphanage alight. You are Gorlinn, who does Master Gravity but there was the time she accidentally hurled me fifty metres into the air and I only survived by falling onto a dungheap, so honestly I'd stay away from her. You are Fli, the Blademaster with an unfortunate case of butterfingers.
These wouldn't be out of place in a comic fantasy, where those are both valid character concepts and expected parts of the narrative. But as best I can work out the tone and tropes of Numenera, slapstick isn't an intended part of it, and neither is the straight-up drama of struggling to master unreliable powers. It seems supposed to be a fairly classical heroic game, and those kinds of failures don't really mesh with that tone.
A second is that one of the uses for GM Intrusions is to change the current situation. If they were simply ways to establish what happened on the roll of a 1 (a failure), it would bother me less (although it would in fact still bother me). But the GM can chip in at any time with an Intrusion. That means Monte is actively encouraging GMs to look at the game in progress and go: "Hey, you know how you just succeeded? Actually, you didn't. Maybe you also caused a massive problem."
This seems bad, because players tend to really enjoy success, which usually builds momentum, whereas failure tends to sap it. And in particular, I'm confident that swapping out a success for a failure is going to steal the momentum of a game.
Now I see two main ways the GM is likely to use these outside rolling 1s. The first is when they feel that a conflict or challenge will be cut short and rendered uninteresting by the judicious application of the Focus. The second is where they feel that the narrative evoked by the Focus going wrong is more compelling than the one evoked by it being used successfully.
I think the issue here is that in both cases, this saps agency from the players by rewriting the outcomes of some of their choices. The player chose to invoke a Focus and did so successfully; the GM decides they don't like that result and changes it. This for me veers uncomfortably close to simply saying "actually, you don't do that". I'm not willing to say it's actually wrong, or it shouldn't be done, or anything that absolute. I'm just a bit wary of it.
I think it's also relevant that the GM does this via a handwavy power, rather than via a specific mechanical ability. For example, if a creature has the ability to ignore mind-control, few players will object to it shrugging off a successful use of mind-controlling abilities. Similarly, certain powerful monsters in D&D have a pool of tokens they can use to negate failed saving throws, and thus resist powerful effects (specifically designed to ensure battles against a lone creature don't become stunlocked and therefore boring). And a few systems allow a GM to specifically protect or empower NPCs with a pool of tokens, as in FATE. Players tend to be understanding about these mechanical factors. The Numenera equivalent, however, is just the GM offering players XP to accept a rewriting of events. On the flipside, this rule is codified by the game, so some players may feel more justified in rejecting the change. As Arthur suggested though, other players may find it harder because this is an explicit mechanical aspect of the GM's tools rather than simply part of the social contract, and because they are incurring an XP penalty.
Of the two, I think the narrative intervention may be more troubling. A GM has a huge array of narrative tools and powers at their disposal, because in general the GM is inventing most of the world, the NPCs, their motivations, and can conjure or change elements with a fairly free hand to shape the narrative as they choose. Players typically have a much more limited set of explicit options for interacting with the world; choosing your actions and resolving them mechanically, filtered by your chargen choices and other developments that determine your capabilities, is the most reliable of those. You can normally rely on the fact that if you decide to Do X and you make the rolls required to Do X, you will actually Do X even if the consequences prove to be Z rather than the expected Y. The Intrusion mechanic, however, allows the GM to say that no, you didn't Do X at all.
I like to think that most GMs would use this capability sparingly, and they would generally prefer You Do X Which Causes Y But Also Z as a format for Intrusions - but that is not what Numenera recommends.
The ones about broken/lost equipment look particularly dodgy to me, because those are fairly permanent costs whereas most effects are temporary. Replacing equipment is often not easy, especially when you're out adventuring. And it's notable that these mostly apply to Foci which rely on that specific equipment, which makes it infinitely worse. You're an archer? Your bowstring breaks. You use a shield or armour? Your shield breaks, or your armour falls apart. A weapon? Your weapon breaks or is lost or stolen. A bard? Your instrument breaks.
Yes, that's right, these Intrusions basically remove the piece of equipment that defines what that character can do. This is functionally equivalent to saying "your mystical pyrokinetic powers stop working for an unspecified period of time", which strangely enough nobody has suggested is a good Intrusion. That's because it's a terrible Intrusion. It's a bad idea to negate part of a character's core concept without strong reasons that the player is likely to accept, such as a plot that they're engaging with. Doing so arbitrarily as part of a "random things happen" mechanic is an even worse idea.
There is a very real risk that a GM running Numenera by the book might decide to, say, break the shieldmaster's shield. And it might be quite a long time before they get another one. And in the meantime, they are just worse at everything. It's not got any particular interest value that I can see, there's no real sense of narrative interest; they're just mechanically penalized.
Denizens of the Ninth World
I also took a look at the list of, let's be honest, monsters. Numenera is keen to present itself as a game of exploration and stories, rather than one of dungeon-bashing, but the fantastical creatures offered by the game don't really bear out that premise.
But that's a discussion for another time! For now, let's consider the Intrusions associated with those critters. I count 51 Intrusions (some have multiple effects and I've counted each of those effects).
Your attack misses: the creature dodges one or more attacks unexpectedly. 3 instances.
More enemies appear: there are more of them (normally 1d6 more) than you initially thought. 3 instances.
It escapes: the creature gets away, or has a damned good try. 4 instances.
It is tougher: the creature heals, has extra hit points or otherwise survives longer than expected. 4 instances.
Your stuff breaks: the creature destroys one of your items. 4 instances.
An unusual effect: something distinctly different happens. 4 instances, each of them part of another effect.
Lose a turn: you're stunned, knocked down or otherwise unable to act. 6 instances.
More dangerous: the creature takes an extra attack, causes more damage than expected, makes a special attack, or turns out to be intrinsically more dangerous than it seemed (and therefore always does more damage). 23 instances.
Let's just pause to admire the creativity here.
Yes, I am being mean here, but come on. It's not as though my summarising is really inappropriately cutting out the rich variation. Each of those has a little description, but they very much are simply a dash of flavour followed by "it makes an extra attack", "the PC moves one step down the damage track" (a major injury), "the character has [a mildly thematic experience] and takes extra damage". A few are genuinely different - the Ghost Crab responds to the loss of a limb by rapidly synthesising a new, better claw to fight them - but generally they don't feel especially varied.
There's a couple that are more thematic. The creature swallows you; it mentally seizes command of one of your gadgets and uses it against you; it entangles you in its tentacles. But they're so few and far between.
But step back a moment. The really, importantly noteworthy thing about these Intrusions is that every. single. one. is about combat. Yes, even the ones for humble beasts of burden are about them fleeing because of a fight. Given a vast wealth of imagination to play with, creatures from a biomechanical techno-fantastical future who may have entirely alien intellects and physical natures, and asked to posit the unexpected things that might happen in interaction with them, Numenera suggests you have them attack twice or inflict a particularly nasty wound.
Lack of Scope
So coming back to that permanent/temporary thing, one of the things I notice is that Numenera doesn't seem to have any standard at all for what constitutes a reasonable scope of GM Intrusion.
There's no temporal scope. Many Intrusions last for a single round, as you're stunned or prone or confused. But there's the ones where your sword is destroyed. There's the ones where your pet goes berserk and causes chaos. There's the ones where people concoct an elaborate plot to capture you and exploit your abilities.
There's no scope of severity either. There's the ones where you lose a round of actions. The ones where you alienate NPCs you may want to help you, or even be hoping to involve in a substantial storyline. The ones where you permanently destroy a valuable item, possibly one important to keeping you alive or even accomplishing a goal.
And there's no scope of kind. Most of the Intrusions are straight-up mechanical penalties. A few are short-term complications that might, in fact, lead to interesting and enjoyable play, although not if you keep doing them. And a handful are actually plot arcs that your character is caught up in in an interesting way.
Simply put, "the weapon which you use all the time and largely defines your character breaks, imposing substantial mechanical penalties for an indefinite period" is just not in any way comparable to "an entire storyline is devoted to the attempts of a group of NPCs to kill, enlist or control you". One is a major mechanical penalty with minimal interest; the other spotlights the character in a storyline that isn't necessarily disadvantageous in any way and is likely to be fun for the player. And neither of these fits well with "you fall over".
The Intrusions thing
I'm wondering whether half the problem with GM Intrusions isn't that they're trying to serve two masters.
On the one hand, Intrusions serve as a fumble rule. They're a bad thing or complication that kicks off because you rolled a 1 on your dice. This is a little like the critical hits of other games, and since only PCs roll dice in Numenera it sort of makes sense that they'd happen on a 1 instead. However, I retain my previous reservations about failure-type mechanics.
On the other hand, Intrusions are supposed to be a means for GMs to deliberately introduce additional complications, or to prevent a plan from going smoothly (and perhaps eliding a lot of what has been planned in an adventure). In this capacity, they're a kind of deal brokered with the players, but with the higher authority handed to the GM because that fits the power dynamic Monte wants for Numenera (which is fair enough). The GM feels more able to use this approach because they're offering XP and using a specific twist-introducing mechanic, while the players feel they have some control over the introduction of things they don't want. Not my favourite thing but okay, I get it.
But I don't think these two match. I'm not sure it's possible to make any kind of coherent system for handling, on the one hand, a minor mechanical penalty meant to spice up the experience of rolling badly; and another, mid-level narrative twists that are part of the shared story; and on an inexplicable third hand, quite substantial structural elements and arcs that affect the campaign and storyline on a subtler but larger scale.
I particularly don't think it's possible if you don't distinguish those things in any way. Monte does allude to them: the discussion of GM Intrusions explicitly has a section on "Using GM Intrusions as a Narrative Tool". Here he talks about how "the GM can direct things more subtly-gently, almost imperceptibly influencing events rather than forcing them. GM Intrusion represents things going wrong. The bad guys planning well. Fortune not favouring the PCs."
However, he doesn't ever talk about the fact that sometimes a GM Intrusion consists of a character falling down and losing a single turn of combat, and sometimes it consists of the entire party being trapped and moved to a different 'scene', and sometimes it involves a plot featuring a group of bounty hunters attempting to capture the party healer; and the way that these things are distinct.
Let's take another look at that "Narrative Tool" business, shall we?
A GM can use this narrative tool to steer things. That doesn't mean railroad the players or direct the action of the game with a heavy hand. GM intrusion doesn't enable you to say "You're all captured, so here's your 1XP." Instead, the GM can direct things more subtly-gently, almost imperceptibly influencing events rather than forcing them. GM Intrusion represents things going wrong. The bad guys planning well. Fortune not favouring the PCs.
Okay, that sounds reasonable and useful to me.
Consider this scenario: the GM plants an interesting adventure seed in a small village, but the PCs don't stay there long enough to find it. Just outside the village, the PCs run afoul of a vicious viper that bites one of them. The GM uses intrusion to say that the poison from the snake will make the character debilitated unless he gets a large dose of a very specific antitoxin, which the group doesn't have. Of course, they aren't required to go back into the village where the GM's interesting adventure can start, but it's likely that they wil, looking for the antitoxin.
Some players might find intrusion heavy handed, but the XP softens the blow. And remember, they can refuse these narrative nudges. Intrusion is not meant to be a railroading tool, just a bit of a rudder. Not an inescapable track, but a nudge here and there."
So here are the suggested intrusions.
- The players have missed an adventure seed. The GM intrudes to make one of them debilitated (effectively helpless) until they find a specific antitoxin, hoping they will return to the village.
- The PCs are doing poorly in a fight. The GM intrudes to say they are caught in a net and now threatened to surrender.
- The PCs refuse to surrender while trapped in a net and surrounded. The GM intrudes to knock one unconscious as a warning to the others.
I'm not sure about you, but I think if I was in a game where the GM said "right, this character falls unconscious until you get a special rare McGuffin you have no idea where to find" this would genuinely bother me. There's a couple of reasons for that.
One is that it's a pretty major effect. As I've said, common Intrusions tend to block a PC turn or inflict about 5 points of damage (or both), or occasionally take them 1 step down the damage track. This effect is essentially doing at least 24 points of damage.
Secondly, from a mechanical point of view that's a big impact on the party. You've lost the services of probably 1/3 or 1/4 of the party, and you also need to look after that helpless PC. Your capabilities are severely restricted.
Thirdly, I think removing a PC from play is always a big deal, because that means the player can't do anything. A PC falling unconscious because of a series of bad choices or bad rolls leading to mechanical defeat is one thing, but there are several opportunities to intervene, and the other PCs can also take normal steps to revive them. A PC being captured through similar misfortune and miscalculation also has opportunities to reconsider. But here, the GM simply decrees that that player has to stop being able to mechanically interact with the gameworld for an unspecified period.
Worse, the GM then hands responsibility for their fiat to the other players. While Snoozy sits back, the others are given the unspoken choice to either carry on with their adventure (inconsiderately leaving Snoozy out of things), or drop everything and seek a solution. It's obvious which is 'correct', and also which the social contract will tend to demand. If the unconsciousness was the player's fault things might be different; they pay the temporary price for bad choices. But as it's a punishment imposed arbitrarily by the GM, it's not fair to leave them in the lurch.
Another aspect here is that it's a pretty substantial plot point, because the PCs don't seem to have any way to know where or how they might obtain the McGuffin. I mean, they can go and ask at the village like the GM wants, but that's about it. As a player, I tend to find this kind of thing disconcerting. I don't mind plots where I don't know of any specific way to resolve them, and need to explore possibilities; I don't mind plots where I know what needs doing and some sensible steps to take towards it. But "you need X, you have no notion whatsoever where X might be" gives me a sense of choice paralysis, since I don't really know where to start. The players here can't just start considering sensible options for dealing with paralysing snakebite, because they explicitly need a specific antivenom.
Coming back, though; I really don't think there's any plausible way to claim that this example isn't railroading. Monte is reacting to a PC leaving the plot location by knocking out a PC indefinitely in the hope that, for want of any other obvious options, they will go back to the village. That is not in any sense subtle, it is in no way imperceptible, and it is very close to forcing the PCs. Yes, the players could technically decide to just walk off into the desert with their unconscious pal, but most groups will not feel able to do that, and will understand that they are having their arms twisted to head back to the village. They know their fellow-player is being locked out of the game, they know the mechanical consequences, and they know that trying sensible in-game solutions will not work because they need the McGuffin.
My preference here would honestly be for the GM to bring the seed to us.
They could have an NPC ask us to stay for some reason. They could hurry forward whatever seed is happening. They could also say out-of-character that there's a bit more going on in the village if we want to hang around, thus giving us an actual choice as to whether we want to engage with it - even if they don't want to tell us exactly what it is. And honestly, I'll normally say 'yes' to that.
It seems here like Monte is falling into what I consider a bit of a trap. He seems very keen that the PCs encounter his adventure seed, but equally keen not to break the fourth wall, and thus is trying to manipulate them into doing what he wants from a metagame perspective by using in-game events. Unfortunately, this is quite an ineffective and often heavy-handed way of doing things. You're translating GM feelings into in-game content and then expecting the players to back-translate it. Of course, you might not think of it that way - I don't think Monte does - but that's essentially what's happening here. He's not specifically trying to say to the players "you should go back to the village", but he is trying to create a situation where they think going back to the village is a good idea. But it's really hard to understand how other people might react to an in-game situation when they don't have access to the information you do, and do have a lot of ideas about the plot and the gameworld which you don't have access to!
And of course, gaming is already a partly symbolic medium, with a lot of narrative tropes and genre tropes and all kinds of other baggage, which affects how events may be interpreted. The tiny fraction of available in-world information that the GM chooses to present is itself filtered and symbolic, just like a cartoon drawing is a symbolic representation of a person.
It seems to be a fairly common idea that GMs shouldn't engage in metagame discussion, but honestly a lot of the time it's the most elegant way to do things. It saves GMs from frustration that players are ignoring their beautiful content, it saves players from frustration that the GM is doing odd things and they need to try and derive from these clues what they might be 'supposed' to do. Accepting the odd bit of metagame discussion frees up players and GMs alike to generally understand in-game events as in-game events.
This example seems a little better. Yes, the GM has decreed that a net catches them, but that seems roughly what Intrusions do; there are ways this could come about through other mechanics (a net attack roll, a net trap) but the Intrusion says "this happens, unless you say no". Okay.
The actual mechanical effect of the net isn't clear, so it's hard to tell exactly how punishing it is. If the PCs can reasonably break out of it, that seems fair enough. If they basically can't, then this is functionally indistinguishable from decreeing that they lose the fight. My impression is that they can escape.
Let's be reasonable here. A GM is (we normally consider) within their rights to have the PCs encounter an overwhelming number of enemies - at least, providing they've got into a situation where being overwhelmed and captured seems a plausible risk. It's a little more controversial in other situations. On the whole, though, I personally don't think "you get captured" is an unreasonable outcome from a lot of the types of combats my characters get into; there's usually a reasonable risk of that happening through mechanics anyway. Assuming that the capture will lead to some other interesting scenes, rather than being frustratedly helpless for a long time while stuff happens around me, I'm probably okay with it as an occasional thing.
On the other hand, I'm not sure it's not railroady. Especially once the GM steps in again to knock out one of the PCs - not via game mechanics, but by decreeing it. And yes, the PCs can reject it, but still. This is a very clear signal from the GM that they are not supposed to continue this fight, and are not likely to win it.
Now, those kinds of signals can also occur in an Intrusion-free fight. The PCs might take a lot of damage quickly, for example. And yet, I feel there's something different here, because the GM is sending a metagame signal rather than an in-game one. The PC doesn't fall unconscious because of the mechanical resolution of their relative capabilities with the full weight of the player's skill to apply them, but because the GM says so. To the players, this feels like a signal from the GM that finding a clever way to apply your character's abilities will not be enough.
Now, Monte advises not forcing their hand any further. However, I think as a player, if I was told that the entire party was now trapped in a net, and then told that another PC was knocked out (without a die being rolled), I would have little reason to expect the rest of the fight to be 'fair'. No, I would understand that we were being captured because the GM said so.
I've had reservations about the Intrusions mechanic for a while, and I think Monte's list of suggestions goes a fair way to highlighting the issues with it. A mechanic along this thematic line has the potential to help keep the game varied, but when the man responsible for envisioning and designing this whole universe largely limits himself to an oddball cousin of the Critical Hit and negating players' actions, it's hard to see that it adds anything worthwhile.
Like the other Uncanny Valleys I've observed with Numenera, I wonder whether this mechanic doesn't suffer from being too much and too little. A tradder iteration that essentially took the place of the Critical and Fumble and applied to extreme rolls would be easier to accept, while it could have been expanded and spun to offer a more interesting range of outcomes than simply damage boosts (as some Critical Tables already do) and to apply more broadly than just to combat. Alternatively, a more Storygame system with actual narrative mechanics would have a natural place for the idea that the GM interjects a twist, or even tempts players with failure (or just the unexpected) in the short term for the promise of greater control later.