Gamemastering in Numenera

I’m not a particularly experienced GM, but I’ve been doing quite a lot of gamemastering of Numenera games recently, so I figured it would be a good idea to write about my experiences, both to share some hopefully useful information with other budding Numenera GMs out there and also just get some ideas for my own improvement out of my head.

To start off, lets get something out in the open:

I’m incredibly lazy.

As a GM I do exactly 0 prep. I don’t make up encounters beforehand, I don’t plan out stories, or scenes or any kind of interaction at all. Why not? Because it’s one hell of a lot of work and quite frankly I’m blown away with awe by the GMs that have the time and energy to do that during the gaps between actually running their games. I’m a busy person and I can barely find time to do much of anything, let alone plan ahead for a game which might not even end up using any of the stuff I work on, due to a little thing called ‘free will’.

This isn’t to say I go in with absolutely no ideas. I’m using musing with half a dozen or more half-formed nebulous concepts bouncing around in my skull but anything in the way of plans or grand, multiple session spanning epics written down on paper or computer are alien to me. As such, all my games are run almost entirely ad-hoc, improvised on-the-fly as a response to the players. Even when I’m running a pre-written adventure out of a book, I’ll mostly improvise, only deferring to the book during lulls in activity at the table to refresh myself on the rough adventure plot and maybe some creature stats.

A lot of my improvisation also comes down to the fact that I have an absolutely terrible memory for facts. I’m good at remembering patterns, but little chunks of factual data like names, places characters stats, etc, elude me most of the time. Planning ahead for that doesn’t really help unless I’m constantly reading from my notes, but I prefer not to read from a book while GMing, because it makes delivering the content fall a bit flat in my opinion. That’s more a failing in me for not being able to read aloud very well, rather than with the concept of reading from a book, though I will say I also prefer to be able to retain eye-contact with the players and address them directly, rather then looking at a page. GMing isn’t just reading, speaking and idea generation – it’s a performance role.

So, now you have a rough idea of where I am coming from, you’ve either buggered off, thinking I’m talking out of my arse, or you are intrigued and wish to learn more. For those of you still with me, let me continue…

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Baru, My New Numenera Character

In the new Numenera game I shall hopefully be playing in this Friday, I shall be playing a simple-minded giant called Baru, a Foolish Glaive who Performs Feats of Strength.

Baru is a simple-minded, friendly young man in his late twenties to mid-thirties that works on his parents farm. He is huge and eats like an aneen, a fact that his parents are finding hard to reconcile with their meagre earnings on their failing farm. Already they have had to sell their animals and Baru tills the fields, dragging the plough himself using his immense strength. It’s simple work, so Baru enjoys it because he likes being outside in the sunshine.

His brother, being the more enterprising sort, sometimes takes Baru down to town to have him perform great feats of strength for the amusement and amazement of onlookers, occasionally earning them some shins in the process, but still it can only help so much and the farm is still failing. After much soul-searching his ageing parents decided to send Baru off with his brother Zigg to find their fortune and maybe bring something back of worth or use so that they might revitalise the farm. The parent don’t hold out much hope, but with the fields ploughed, they can hold out without Baru and Zigg until next ploughing and also don’t have to shoulder the huge expense of feeding Baru. Maybe a journey will knock some sense into the boy, his parents hope.

Eventually, Zigg and Baru became separated and Baru found himself wandering the Steadfast alone, looking for something that could help his parents. He didn’t really know what that might be, but he was sure he’d know when he saw it.

What most, including Baru himself, don’t know, is that Baru isn’t simply dimwitted. Due to some quirk of the Numenera half of his mind is floating around in the data sphere, doing whatever it does out there. Sometimes in moments of lucidity it reconnects to his meat-brain, but most of the time that portion of brain-power is simply unavailable to him. However, it might explain his uncanny luck – perhaps his subconscious out in the global data network manipulates nanites and numenera in the subtle ways available to it to help out his body in meat space. Whatever is going on, it doesn’t concern Baru. He’s always been this way, and the strange dreams he has are just dreams, as far as he is concerned.

Boss Battles in Numenera

I recently responded to a call for advice over at Ninth World Hub regarding how easy a party of players can take out a single enemy. While combat isn’t the focus of Numenera in general, that doesn’t exclude the possibility of “boss battles” or powerful, singular enemies to fight. If you do want to focus on combat, if only for a small moment, you will find that the player characters are extremely effective combatants.

With effort, cyphers, powers and abilities and the fact that characters have (starting at Tier 1) around 30 health, it’s really hard to take a player out or make them feel threatened or afraid for their lives before they can take out a single enemy. That’s in a 1-on-1 scenario, typically you’ll have a party of 3 or more player characters, so when you are throwing a single bad guy at them the odds become even more skewed in the players favour. When a single tier 1 player can, in a single attack, so upwards of 6 damage a round, with multiple players that’s a lot of damage to absorb to survive even one round. If you are aiming for an epic battle, you need something a bit tougher.

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It’s Good to be Back

Finally after an extended hiatus, we’re back playing a roleplaying game again! We’ve returned to Numenera, but sadly due to a number of dropouts, we decided to start a fresh campaign with new characters. I’m in the driving seat again as GM and we kicked off the adventure with one of the PCs already captured in a slavers caravan heading to Rarmon in the Pytharon Empire. The other two PCs, trying to cross the Empire on their way to Nihliesh, ended up captured as well after a bit of a scuffle and negotiation.

The group this time around is made up of an ageing cyborg – a Wise Glaive who Fuses Flesh and Steel and a pair of mutants, one a man on fire with adhesive hands and a knack for resisting attacks on his mind – a Mutant Nano who Bears a Halo of Fire and a slow, lumbering woman with prehensile dreadlocks, telekinetic abilities and a robust digestion system, with a strangely absent past – a Mutant Nano who Isn’t. It’s particularly interesting for me this time around because I wrote the “Isn’t” focus, so it’s good to see it play-tested outside my own solo test scenarios. “Wise” also comes from theninthworld.com as does our Firey Nano’s “Very smart” mutation that grants him his armour versus psychic attacks and the female mutant’s “robust digestion”. It’s going to be fun to put some of the communities additions through their paces.

The session last night was really only meant to be a quick character generation session and maybe a quick dip into the game to establish a few things. Suddenly midnight arrived and the group had caused a mass-slave escape in the Slaver’s Markets of Rarmon. Riots and looting ensued. It was a great session and the Isn’t focus played out really well, the ‘Absent Esoteries’ effect adding a lot of fun to the actions going on throughout the groups bid for freedom. Really looking forward to the next game.

Since we dropped the old campaign, I let slip some of the behind-the-scenes things that were happening. They’d unshackled an AI they’d dealt with before, started the beginnings of a Magyr holy war and depending on their actions (though probably, considering) the King of Ghan was going to be assassinated and they’d likely be implicated, plus it was the first step on the Jagged Dream’s plan to instigate a huge war between the Beyond and the Steadfast. Fun times!

I’ve written some more Numenera content over at The Ninth World, two things of which I’m particularly proud of. The first one is The Flense, a creature encounter inspired by Neal Asher’s Hooders and some veritable nightmare fuel for players. The other one is a focus built around an existential crisis, ceasing the exist as if reality itself rejects your existence. I’m looking forward to using both in my campaign, speaking of which, you can keep up to date with what is happening in it over on it’s Obsidian Portal page, Voice of the Wind.

Articles

Hard Choices: Running Multiple Campaigns in Parallel

Cyphers

Instant Chef

Encounters

The Flense

Foci

Isn’t

Numenera: Characters

I’ve been GMing Numenera for a little while now, but I’ve yet to play in any games in real life. However, I’m currently active in several Play-by-Post games on RPoL.net and RPG Crossing and I thought it might be interesting to share them. I wont bother going fully into the stats/skills/etc and will just highlight the more unusual aspects and the background info as you can look everything else up in the books.

Sylys – a Learned Glaive who Commands Mental Powers

Background

Sylys has been trying to join the Order of truth for a long time. When he was young, a priest came to his village and showed them such wonders, not just through the magic of cyphers but through knowledge. She knew things, incredible, impossible things of the past and the future that left him in such awe it was almost impossible to go to sleep each night for all the ideas and wonder running instead his head. That’s why, late at night, he watched the priest dancing in the moonlight.

At least, he thought she was dancing, but soon he realised she was fighting, practicing a martial prowess he’d never seen before against an invisible assailant. He wanted to shout out, but he was too afraid. She fell at the hands of her attacker and he never forgave himself. She had been a plain, quiet woman, not exciting like the girls he had been becoming increasingly aware of, but her confidence, her joy in knowledge and her willingness to teach, it had changed something in him and now he was responsible for allowing that light to be extinguished.

For the early part of his life, Sylys was an angry young man consumed by guilt and vengeance. He trained hard, learning what he could about how best you use his fists and feet. He hunted for the invisible foe, but never found it, but his quest drove him to leave is village, abandon his friends and family and it eventually destroyed everything around him. His rage finally brought him under the wing of a group of psychic monks who trained not only their bodies, but also their minds to be weapons. What they could not see, they could sense in their minds.

What they taught him though, also allowed him to master himself and he learned to let go of his anger and forgave himself. He took to study, learning more about mental and martial arts and the world around him, deciding to make a new pledge. The world had lost a priest of the Order and was a worse place for it – he would take a pilgrimage, learn and grow and eventually earn a place among them so that he may take her place and fill the void she had left in the world. It wasn’t about atonement or revenge any more. It was about honouring her memory.

Thoughts

Due to his background, I took training in knowledge of detecting the invisible, knowledge of the Order of Truth and knowledge of the Numenera. I also specced him towards being an unarmed monk, with No Need for Weapons and Trained Without Armour. That said, he carried a greatsword and a bow, mostly for training though or large beasts where bare-fist fighting wouldn’t cut it. He also carried books, one on the Aeon priesthood and another on unexplored areas of the Ninth World.

This character didn’t last long because sadly the game died very quickly. However, a bunch of us from the game made friends and found ourselves together in a new game with new characters.

Carra Machirl – A Tough Nano who Employs Magnetism

Background

Carra is a very headstrong young girl barely out of childhood. Short and stout with a long black braid of hair, Carra is a tomboy who dreads the idea of a future arranged marriage, but is tough enough not to complain about it if it’s for the good of the tribe. That’s why she’s always the first to volunteer for any mission, because she’s brave and tough and she’ll take any chance to prove it to anyone, so it annoys the hell out of her when she’s always told to let the grownups handle it. Now her birthday has gone and she’s technically a woman, she’s having none of that.

Carra’s attitude can sometimes make her a bit of a social pariah among the other young adults and children of the tribe, but Carra doesn’t care. She’s made friends with some of the mutants in the village, much to the disapproval of her parents who like most normal folk think young girls shouldn’t be hanging around such… ‘people’ if they can help it.

That said, Carra has two parents that love her and a bunch of friends her age, mostly from among the other social outcasts in school, etc. Her mother and father are both in the village guard, making sure the things in the woods stay in the woods and it’s their continued position as protectors that provides no small motivation to Carra’s need to prove herself as tough, even if she isn’t much of a physical fighter.

Thoughts

Carra has rapidly become one of my favourite characters to play. She’s a headstrong sixteen-year-old, doesn’t always think things through and so far has caused a bit of trouble in the game, but in a fun way. She’s a proactive character which I’m finding I am enjoying a lot more than some of the passive characters I’ve played in the past.

Crave – A Clever Nano who Works the Back Alleys

Description

Crave is a pale, lithe man with lank, greasy dark hair that makes him perpetually look like he just escaped drowning. Apart from his slightly bedraggled appearance, he has a forgettable demeanor and blends into the background with his long, plain brown coat.

Background

Crave has known ever since an early age that real power doesn’t come from physical strength, reputation, breeding or money. Real power is information. It was this knowledge that set Crave on the path of the Nano, delving into forbidden knowledge hoarded and hidden in the dark and learning it’s secrets. He spent many years, spying and manipulating things so he could continue his studies. Of course, one day his foray into the more esoteric arts resulted in a terrible accident and the locals of his usual haunts in the Black Riage made life a nuisance for him, branding him as a dangerous liability. As such, he decided to seek out “Iyene Who Knows”, a knowledge broker in Norou who may be able to make use of his talents or at least provide him with more knowledge of his own to trade with.

Thoughts

I like the idea of Crave, but I’ve found playing him he hasn’t been quite as enjoyable as I had thought. Mostly it’s because we’re in a more action orientated scenario at the moment and he is mostly a social manipulator so has felt a little impotent so far. He might make an interesting NPC in the game I run in future.

Milo – A Strong Jack who Rides the Lightning

Background

Milo has been with running with a bad crowd since the beginning, mostly due to being raised by people of questionable morals as, more or less, an slave-come-thug. As a result, he is somewhat of a career criminal and is typically sent in when the more subtle approach fails to get results. Milo has a talent for breaking and hurting things, but in truth he doesn’t enjoy this life and he is smarter than he looks. In fact, he finds being used as a blunt instrument by his masters rather dull and uninteresting and further more, he doesn’t like hurting people, even if he is good at it. Luckily, his performance has earned him some slack on his proverbial leash and so he’s using it to get out and never come back. Sadly, owners rarely see things from a runaway slaves point of view.

Thoughts

I quite like Milo, I play him in an almost racist parody of a Eastern European stereotype. He reminds me a lot of Roman from GTA4 in his mannerisms and speech even though he looks like Mariusz Pudzianowski. He’s been fun to play, a bad guy through no fault of his own trying to be good.

Vesry Strenny – An Outcast Jack who Rolls the Dice

Background

Vesry used to be a popular vagabond. A known mischief maker, layabout and lovable scamp, he was well-known is his village with a certain affection as a gambler and entertainer of sorts. That all ended one fateful day when he got into a game with some particularly nasty individuals that did not take too kindly to him. After stripping him of everything he owned in a series of games of chance, they offered him one final game. If he won, he would get everything he lost back. If not, they would take his daughter into slavery as payment.

He lost.

When the village found out what he had done, they were horrified. His wife, bless her, had died during child birth but his family disowned him, they forever more had no son, no brother. He was outcast, driven out of the village with nothing but the few items he kept upon his person. For years, he drifted on the outskirts of civilisation, drinking himself into a stupor to drown out the combination of shame and self-pity, relying on the only skill he was ever good at, gambling, to feed himself. Eventually he found himself in a lot of trouble, his drunken escapades and the hateful glares of those who recognised him for the child-selling scum that he was driving him into riskier and more dangerous activities until the law finally caught up with him.

Thoughts

I’ve not yet actually played this character, and it’s the first one to use a third party descriptor and focus (both or which I happened to write). I have a good feeling about him though. generally I dislike playing the outcast, outsider because it makes being proactive harder and is oh so cliche. However, I think the circumstances of the game (we start in prison) and the heavily 50/50 chance-based focus makes for a fun combination. The gambling addict trying to atone for his sins by using the very skills that got him into this mess in the first place seems like a fun way to screw up!

Casey DeBraun – A [REDACTED]

Background

Whilst exploring some ancient ruins in South America, Casey found herself caught in an ancient trap inside a burial chamber. The trap released a noxious gas, choking her into unconsciousness. When she awoke, almost a month had passed yet somehow she hadn’t starved to death whilst laying, comatose in that tomb and now things seemed strangely different…

Thoughts

While not strictly Numenera, I happened to get into a playtest game of The Strange, also by Monte Cook Games, which uses the same Cypher system on which Numenera is built. So far it’s early days but I’m enjoying it. Casey is a sort of Indiana Jones type girl, trained in archaeology but more interested in shooting things and now working in a security firm for hire as a guard. I don’t want to say any more due to NDAs, but so far I’m feeling really positive about The Strange and I can’t wait for it’s full release.