Gamemastering in Numenera


13 minutes


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…

Priming Your Imagination

With such a strong focus on improvisation, you need to keep your imagination primed with cool and interesting ideas. I rarely bother writing anything down (something I wish to change) but just day-dreaming out a few scenarios and encounters whenever you have a spare moment is a good plan. Reading a lot of books, especially those that fit the science-fantasy genre, but also horror, pure sci-fi or pure-fantasy work just fine. I also weird a lot of the more bizarro-fiction works set arguably in modern day, but with crazy weird strangeness thrown in the mix.

Reading news articles about new technology, or just browsing wikipedia for weird and interesting fact snippets is a good course of action. Reading the Numenera source book, the short stories that have been put out set in that world, Numenera actual plays or even actual plays from other games with weird, fantastical themes all help as well. Basically you just want to saturate your brain with weirdness and let it percolate, ready to emerge at a moments notice. Practice coming up with ideas on the fly, think of scenarios that might be fun, weird or just provide some kind of goal or direction to the players when they might otherwise just be aimlessly wandering around. Once you have scenarios, play them out in your head without planning them, just explore what people might do and day-dream down each branch of possibility.

Now, you can do this as actual prep-work, and actually take down notes and keep a record of ideas. If you have the time to do that, great! Personally I can’t be bothered most of the time unless I’m particularly captured by an idea and really don’t want to forget any part of it.

Plotting the Narrative Course

What!? Plotting!? Yes, I know I said I don’t do any prep but you know what, I lied. Lying is a valuable GMs tool, get used to it. And besides, this is hardly full blown story arc writing or anything like that. At the most basic level, it’s good to have some kind of plot progression in the back of your mind, even when running a completely sandbox game.

In fact, in a pure sandbox environment, it’s somewhat counter-intuitively more important to keep at least one story arc in your head at all times, ideally 2 or 3. Sandboxes really fail when players are not taking the initiative, aren’t very proactive or just don’t ask the GM for anything or suggest anything to them. Having skeletal plots allows you to give goals and motivation to an otherwise reactionary world. You should be furthering the plots in your head, even if the players aren’t directly effected by them, 1) because they might have far-reaching consequences that give rise to separate adventure ideas, 2) it makes the NPCs and actions in the world seem more real if there is some kind of reason to what is happening and 3) because it keeps your brain ticking over, thinking of interactions and consequences which even if unused entirely, are still useful for on-the-fly recycling into something else.

One of the easiest ways to keep a couple of plots in your head, is to read some actual adventure modules. Those generally have plots and short story arcs in them and you can cherry pick the bits you like and mash them together, or just source them as inspiration if you don’t want to run out of a book directly. This pretty much ties back directly to priming your imagination.

Pacing

In sandbox-y games, pacing is pretty important. Every game has it’s lulls and high points, but with sandbox-y games you don’t have the benefit of a pre-existing narrative to inform you where those are. As such, you need to manage those things yourself, so it’s good to keep a track of the action and the moods of the players. I try to make sure I look at all the players regularly to get a read from their faces on what they are thinking, whether they are bored or anxious, etc, etc and then try to adjust the game as necessary to achieve the feel I’m going for. Making probing suggestions on courses of action for them to take when they are stuck deliberating things in order to get a feel for their plans and to sometimes hint them in one direction or another towards an idea you’ve had is a good technique to use, as is asking them what they want to do in order to hurry things along when necessary. Sometimes I like to run a clock in the back of my head and have things happen if I reach a sort of mental countdown before the players reach a decision.

When it comes to pacing of combat, battles, etc it really depends on the group. If the group is more heavily combat focused and seem to enjoy combat and seek it out more than other things, naturally I’ll give them harder battles that push them to their limit and when I want them to try non-combat solutions, or do something else, I might put them on the back-foot and push them past their limits, so retreat becomes a tempting prospect and small skirmishes stop them from properly resting to recover. Sometimes a long slog that is exhausting for the combat orientated players gives the others a time to shine, be it through healing, finding or providing shelter or retreat or through finding other ways to survive and overcome an encounter.

If the group are more social interaction based, or generally less combat focused, then puzzles, traps and mysteries crop up more often. Obviously those can get quite dull for people not invested in that kind of thing, so putting those things on timers and providing a distraction in the form of combat gives for a intense, fast-paced encounter where the brains are thinking against the clock and the combatants are defending them, trying to give them enough time unmolested to solve the problem.

Obviously there needs to be gaps between these intense bouts of activity, so generally I tend to alternate. I like to try and avoid relying on combat as the primary ‘action’ segments, but with one of my groups they are quite combat focused, so it’s usually a good go-to encounter to make most of the party feel valuable and effective. Again, it’s really a matter of tailoring to your audience.

Common Tricks

There are a few common tricks I like to employ to make the world seems more alive and events seem less random and off-the-cuff. One of the troubles with doing it all improvised is that naturally things tend towards seeming a little chaotic and arbitrary, so locking that down and making their seem to be patterns and plans is important. One of the ways I do this is to provide multiple hooks for the same thing, but in different ways, for example:

You hear a woman speaking about strange lights in the sky at night down by the river. A man was selling strange, over-sized fish, but people who eat his wares have been getting ill. The boatman has been charging triple for river crossings recently, and several people are complaining about being stranded, unable to pay his new fees.

From all of those, the hooks might lead towards the river, the first is obvious, the second implies a source of strange, potentially toxic fish that could be investigated, the third implies a boatman at the river, adding other reasons to go investigate. However, they might all be related. Perhaps the lights are causing fish to grow huge and mutated, and the increased danger of crossing the river due to the creatures is why the boatman is charging so much.

Another common trick I like to do is tie causes and effects together. Maybe the players don’t want to explore the river ideas you’ve been hinting at- hey, it happens. Well, that doesn’t have to mean all that musing and plotting you’ve been doing in your hind-brain whilst the players discuss options is wasted. Drop some new ideas down and then , whilst they are investigating those (or doing something else entirely), extrapolate out the consequences of them not dealing with the idea. To reuse our existing example, perhaps when they next return a lot more people are sick, perhaps even the town has quarantined itself. Maybe the mutation in the fish has spread to the populace that ingested them, perhaps even the ‘mutation; is a side-effect of some weird sentient fluid in the river and is unrelated to the lights in the sky at all, and people are getting weird dreams and visions as it tries to communicate. Maybe the lights have gotten tired of messing with fish and have upped the ante, abducting the boatman and leaving no-one with a way to cross, no matter how many shins they have.

Listen to your players. Often they’ll have their own theories on what is going on, or jokingly make suggestions for things that might happen. Use these. Often you can come up with a random idea and you just don’t need to come up with any justification for it at all - it’s Numenera after all, it’s built for that crazy weirdness. As the players come up with their own explanations, make use of one or more of them, weaving it into the narrative as the actual reality of the situation - you get to make things seem coherent and they get to feel good about discovering and working it out. It’s nice to let players inform more about the story beyond merely their reactions to the things to directly throw at them.

Weirdness

A lot of what makes Numenera great is it’s focus on weirdness, the unexplained and unfathomable. Keeping things weird is hard, not because it’s difficult to think of crazy strange stuff, but because it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t seem completely arbitrary and weird, just for the sake of it, rather than having some underlying reasoning or logic, even if that’s beyond the players understanding. There are many, many, many tropes for ‘weird’ that crop up in Numenera, the ones I often find myself reaching for are:

  • Strange geometry - rooms bigger inside than outside, etc

  • Gravitational anomalies

  • ‘Infinite’ length/size places and things

  • Teleportation

  • Floating

  • Crystals

  • Unexplainable behaviour (for example, I had a Philethis that was folding certain people into cubes, for no apparent reason)

The trouble with these is that 1) they are too easy, 2) they aren’t really that ‘weird’ to the players out-of-game as concepts, 3) they kind of all have the same sci-fi-esque feel. Often, it’s better to avoid trying so hard to be ‘weird’ and go for more traditional themes. I find horror themes work particularly well as a close second for weird - a creeping sense of dread and fear tickles the same parts of the brain, at least for me, so taking some typical horror tropes and blending in other ideas can work really well.

A good way to come up with weirdness based on traditional themes is with a good session of “What if?”. How about a piratical adventure? What if the pirates didn’t have a ship, but rode around on a giant beast they had harnessed? What if instead of treasure in the form of shins,they go around plundering memories from people? Take a simple missing person mystery, what if the person isn’t ‘missing’ at all, but is trapped out of phase with reality? What if there is something that is native to that phase which is now hunting them?

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s my basic brain-farts on how I run games, or at least how I try to run them. It’s not perfect, but I find it works most of the time. There are a few things I would recommend doing, and that I plan on trying to bring to the table myself:

  • Pre-gen some names and basic stats - it really bogs down the game when you need to look stuff up or make something on the fly that needs a bit more mechanical weight to it. Having a few random stats blocks knocked up can be useful, though with Numenera, that’s not so much of an issue.

  • Take notes. I take no notes currently and constantly find myself wishing I did, be it for something simple as a name of a recurring NPC or more complex ideas and plans I’ve mused about during play that I want to remember. Also helps keep track of secret things you may have done to the PCs that you want to reveal later.

That’s all for now. Hopefully someone finds this useful. A lot of it is just common sense, but it can be helpful to see it written down all in one place. If you are interested in hearing about more examples of these things in practice, feel free to ask for some specifics and I’ll try and pluck one either from my actual games, or contrive one to illustrate my points.

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