Having played Numenera again, I’d have to say that the two biggest fun-sucks are deciding whether to save XP for improvements or spend it to reroll or avoid GM Intrusion, and the decision as to whether to spend the XP to avoid GM intrusion and if you accept it having to decide who to give the extra XP to. These are terrible, terrible things to force the player to do in the middle of every exciting situation, wrenching the players out of any immediate visceral reaction to the what’s happening in the fiction and forcing them to consider long-term character goals and emphasizing the fact that its fiction at the worst possible moment by making potentially exciting twists and developments provisional upon the players’ decision about whether to spend resources to prevent it. It is in a word, bletcherous, and it doesn’t need to be.
In order to dial up the awesomeness in Numenera, you only need to make two house rules:
First Make GM Intrusions compulsory, but allow the players to mitigate them instead of retconning them. Instead of saying “This happens, unless you choose to spend now to make it unhappen” say “This happens, what do you do?” Then allow the players to either spend XP to automatically succeed at some attempt to cope, or proceed normally with the usual rolls. Thus instead of “GM Intrusion: You drop your weapon!” ”Spend an XP. I refuse.” it becomes “GM Intrusion: You drop your weapon!” ”But I manage to catch it with my other hand! Spend an XP!” or “They grab you from behind!” ”Just as they do I catch a glimpse of them reflected in the shop window and manage to wrench myself out of their grasp!” Or if the player doesn’t feel like spending the XP, “I try to wrench myself free. (Rolls)” It may seem trivial, but keeping it so the fiction always moves forward with no “taps back” is, imo, really important for maintaining a high level of engagement.
Second Reward players for spending XP on immediate and short-term benefits by making it required. In fact, instead of calling what you get awarded for accepting GM Intrusion and discovery XP, let’s call it Numenera Points, or NP. NP can be spent on anything except Long Term Benefits and Character Advancement. XP are gained by spending NP. XP can only be spent on Long Term Benefits and Character advancement. If you keep the ratio of spent NP to XP earned at 1:1 characters will advance a bit faster, so if you like you can adjust this for your campaign so that, e.g. you spend 2 NP to gain 1 XP. This automatically solves the problem of hoarding NP… there’s no real reason to, and if players do, they gain no particular benefit; it’s not like they are trying to save to improve the character at the same time as keeping a bank to use during play. Those functions are now handled separately by XP and NP, and you can adjust the conversion ratio for any desired pace of advancement. Most importantly, players are now rewarded instead of punished for engaging with the mechanics of the game when they spend NP.
To a lot of people these differences are too subtle to care about; they’re perfectly happy to stop playing their character and ponder how to manage their resources or discuss tactics and rules minutia with other players mid-sword-swing, and rewinding what’s going on in the game is no more distressing than playing an interrupt card on an opponent in Magic the Gathering. On the other hand, there are people like me who are really bugged by “dissociated mechanics” to the point where it can be really hard to care much about what happens to the character, who becomes a token to push around on the board. The thing is, people who don’t mind dissociated mechanics aren’t bugged by associated mechanics; in fact many of them seem to be completely blind to the difference between them… so tweaking things to make the mechanics associated with what’s going on in the game world is a win-win. Engagement with the mechanics is still perfectly satisfactory for those that don’t care how its connected to the fiction, and those that do care can now use the mechanics without the pain of having to step back from the fictional world to make OOC decisions.
Some quick impressions of Numenera from Monday’s game:
- I like the mad-lib character generation. I might even steal it.
- The names Glaive, Jack, and Nano for the character types aren’t particularly evocative for me. Nanotech is the new phlebotinum and it already feels worn out.
- Cyphers is a bad name for the one-use devices. The one thing they’re not is mysterious, since to make them worthwhile you know exactly what they do (I guess they come clearly labelled).
- The hard limit of two Cyphers (or three if you’re a Nano with Expert Cypher use), while clearly a good idea to prevent characters from accumulating a huge pile of them and spending too much time staring at their character sheets looking for the right device to solve a problem, seems pretty contrived. I’d prefer some kind of sliding scale of increased chance of mishap and wilder catastrophic failure.
- Multiplying by 3 all the time is kind of a nuisance. Not sure why it’s better to have everything ranked in difficulty 1-10 with bonuses and penalties applied to that number, but have to multiply by 3 to derive the d20 target.
- Having the player roll both attack and defense vs. target numbers is fun, though our GM made a minor goof and had us rolling low for defense as if we were rolling the opponent’s to-hit against us.
- The GM Intrusion mechanic is immersion breaking. Personally I’d get rid of the choice to accept or spend an XP to reject _and_ the compelled give XP to another player; both those decisions can’t be made from an In Character POV, and the latter can’t even usually be attached to the fiction.
- The game is an odd mix of broad strokes and fiddly details. I’d prefer to stick to the broad strokes.
- I think it would be nice to encourage more colorful character descriptions and abilities; the characters depicted in the game art seem much more exotic than what the character generation process turns out, though that might just be a failure of imagination on my part.
- I’m not sure what I think of spending your stats (which are also your hp) for extra effort or to power your abilities; I am sure I don’t like spending XP for temporary bonuses.
I’m planning on playing in Jonathan Henry’s Numenera campaign once he gets that up and running, but what playing this did for me was make me want to work on a far-future science fantasy setting for Zap! more than run a game of Numenera myself.
The idea of a low-magic fantasy setting seems a bit odd to me, in that the idea that the world we live in is low-magic strikes me as a very modern one. As far as I can tell at most times and places in our world, which has no magic at all, people nonetheless believed that the world was chock full of magic. It might have been hard to make use of reliably, though most superstitions seem to me to be every bit as formulaic as D&D wizard spells, but it lurked everywhere and you needed lots of protection against it.
I can kind of see wanting a setting where objective proof of the existence of magic is hard or impossible to come by if you want something that feels like our world. And I certainly get not wanting the solution to every problem to be just magic it away. But many (most?) low-magic settings I’ve seen in games take it much farther than that, to where hardly anybody even claims to do magic or have never encountered anything they regarded as supernatural, and that doesn’t quite feel right to me. To the modern mind the difference between natural and supernatural is obvious and complete: your cattle catching a disease vs. somebody levitating in front of your eyes are completely distinct kinds of phenomena. In a setting based on the pre-modern world I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t be true.
Since I can’t look at a system without wanting to hack it, here’s how I would hack BRP:
Replace d100 with d20. That means Characteristic Rolls would be straight d20 vs. Characteristic, instead of d100 vs. Char x 5. You’d have 1/5 as many points to divide among your skills (50 instead of 250, e.g.).
Rolls would all be “blackjack style”: roll as high as possible without going over (BRP used to work that way, at least for opposed rolls, and it’s still listed as an optional rule). Hitting your number exactly would be a crit, a 1 would be a fumble, “Special” would be figured on getting close to your number (within X, where X ranges from 0 to 4 depending on your skill).
Why would I do this? Well, basically because I don’t really believe variations of less than 5% add anything to the game, but the math with all the double-digits and multiplication and division is fricking annoying. d100 is really intuitive: a 51 is 51% chance… but that’s its only advantage. My experience is that players just don’t roll enough to discern the difference between 49%, 50% and 51%. That means deciding whether to put 49, 50, or 51 points into a skill at character creation is a waste of effort, and tracking whether experience raises that by 1, 2, 3, etc is a further waste. Call it 10 on a scale of 20 and be done with it.
Meanwhile rolling low is less intuitive than rolling high, but if you don’t use roll low w/d100 then checking for crit or special gets really ugly: you basically have to look at a cheat-sheet next to your skill every time. d20 lets you say a 5% chance is the same as rolling your to-hit number exactly; that’s a little more generous than straight BRP, but it’s super-easy.
And to balance out the bad luck, a table of random fortunate occurrences.
- Ha! Ha! Opponent rolls on Mishap table
- That was Quick! whatever you were attempting happens so fast you take another action immediately
- Serendipity! your failure succeeds at something else entirely (e.g. attempt to find secret passage harmlessly triggers a trap you missed)
- Good Job! you achieve max normal success, whatever that is (e.g. maximum non-critical damage, highest value on a sale)
- Inspirational! +1 morale to allies
- Educational! allies get XP as if they too had accomplished the task
- Lucky! add 1 to your Luck score (if not using Luck, get one free reroll to use later)
- Insight! GM reveals one hidden fact about the situation (e.g. the exact number of HP the enemy has left, or which way the quarry went)
- Look! Somebody dropped something valuable or interesting
- Premonition! Next time you would be surprised, you aren’t
- Not as bad as it looks: the most recent bad thing that happened to you is only half as bad as it first appeared or is mitigated by half (e.g. if you took 4 points damage, it was only two; if you lost 10 gp gambling, you discover you were carrying 5 g.p. more than you thought or find a purse with 5 g.p.).
- Aha! If you failed, reroll; if you succeeded get double the XP for the task
- I meant to do that! failure becomes success in an unexpected way (e.g. opponent blocking a door dodges your blow so violently he hits his head on the lintel)
- In the Zone! Win next initiative roll if in combat, complete the task in one less time period otherwise (e.g. if searching the room takes 5 turns, complete it in 4)
- Focused! Ignore situational penalties (such as bad lighting, or fatigue) on your current action, if that would change failure to success, otherwise ignore them on your next action.
- Make Failure Your Teacher! However much you failed the roll by becomes a bonus to your next attempt at the same action.
- Combo! However much you succeeded by becomes a bonus to succeed on your next action (if you failed there’s no bonus, but no penalty).
- KO! Treat as critical success, for non-combat tasks treat as most favorable outcome your character could ordinarily roll (e.g. if crits do double damage, double the damage you roll)
- Perfect! Maximum possible success, including best possible critical if applicable, for non-combat tasks treat as the most favorable outcome the game allows regardless of whether your character could ordinarily achieve it (e.g. if crits do double damage, do max damage x2, if crits roll on a table, pick the result you want)
- You Win! You prevail in the current situation.