Numenera is a roleplaying game… if the term is unfamiliar, you can google for it. Numenera is a setting far in the future, as a sort of logical extreme of “technology sufficiently advanced”. The world is full of insane gizmos that are still (somewhat) operational… and nobody really knows how any of it works. The social structures resemble the medieval simply because travel is dangerous… limiting infrastructure. So you have isolated communities for the most part, working separately to survive.
And having communities built around such odd things as a series of pipes jutting from a cliff face, some of which are heated, and some contain, or have been modified to contain potable water. No one knows where the pipes actually go, but “warm in winter” and “has indoor plumbing” actually make it an incredibly posh and overpriced place to live. Other areas have to make do with “not overrun by monsters” or “orchard grows screwdrivers”.
Our team of intrepid adventurers includes one Tough Glaive who Masters Weapons; a Mystical Nano who Fuses Flesh and Steel; and a Clever Jack who Controls Gravity. Ordinarily, I’d be able to point out who is the squishy… but after the dust settled and everyone had figured out the powers to best suit their characters… the “mage” has medium armor. The “fighter” has heavy armor and defense… and the Jack… took defensive skill, armorless fighting, and got a shield. I think they’re going to be fine on defense.
The system has each character pick another party member to share a bit of backstory with. Everyone took largely default options. The Nano, with his cyborg… let his wife’s character know a control word to reboot his brain. We let him come up with a nice d20 list of crazy things that could leave him doing. She, in turn, is quite familiar with the Jack, whom she’d tried to train in the finer points of “hitting things with an axe”… but had been catapulted skywards by a rare misfire of her gravity powers.
The adventure “Seedship” happened to start with three interesting hooks. I had three players. I grinned, and assigned everybody their tasks, having them all meet up at the debris-clogged crack into the heart of the complex a wee town was built upon. Why? Because it’s warm. The town has heat in winter, and a kind of hot springs. Which an earthquake had started some… gross fluids bubbling up into the town and the springs. Eww. One member was tasked with fixing the leaks. Another was asked to find a local woman who’d almost certainly gone in trying to, well, save her town. The third was asked by a member of the local doomsayers guild to gather some samples for his actual research work. The doomsaying was really just to keep people out of the facility until they’d gotten their expedition ready to go and, well, take whatever wasn’t nailed down. Bit like the party.
I’d aimed for everyone starting off with the phrase “Oh… it’s you” with varying inflections. Beats starting everyone off in a tavern.
The system for Numenera is simple. You roll a d20. GM 1-10s the difficulty. Skill can reduce difficulty by one or two bumps. “Assets” can reduce it another one or two. Effort can be spent from the stat pools to drop it further. But starting out, you can only spend 1 level of effort, which doesn’t feel like much benefit. But by the end of the second session, the dice and the group were beginning to see how it would come into play more frequently.
The initial task of strong-arming the crack in the wall was a good object lesson in how the stat pools… aren’t stats. The mighty fighter did not make her roll, but the Nano did. In D&D, you’d have very poor odds of a mage bending iron bars. In Numenera… difficulty 4 is difficulty 4… if there’s no skill that applies, it really doesn’t matter if you pummel for a living or blast things with your mind. Although, if you were applying effort to the task, the “weaker” character will tire out quite a lot faster.
Poking carefully, the group found the steel spiders hiding in the crumbling fabric squares dangling from the ceiling. The mighty Glaive spoke, “Oh god, why did it have to be SPIDERS? You know I hate them, oh god.” Which is a great sign I described their entrance well. I can’t take credit for more than delivery, the text was in the adventure. I pointed out that the other adventure I had considered had something much worse. “What could POSSIBLY be worse?”
“Glue-secreting giant centipedes. Oooh, I have a picture! See, it’s wrapped around this tree.”
Low level characters against low level monsters. This proved to be… a surprisingly drawn-out fight. The steel spiders had enough armor to only take a point or two from any given hit. They also didn’t have a very good chance to hit most of the players, and couldn’t hit hard enough to get through the Glaive’s armor. The fight did still do some damage, because everybody managed to roll at least one “1”… allowing me to show them very painfully why you don’t want to brush up against steel spider webbing. It’s razor sharp, and does more damage than the spiders themselves. Although, when the Jack did it, I had her crossbow jam, just to be different.
Some of the problem was purely bad dice rolls. Without any skill or effort, the roll to hit or dodge these was a 9 or better. But a 60% chance of success… is still a 40% chance to fail. The rolls in the 17-20 range do get an extra point or four of damage, which sped things up a bit, when it happened. The most cinematic result was kicking one of the spiders into its own webbing. Reviewing the optional combat rules later, I found there was a little “gang-up” bonus if everyone’s attacking the same target. That +1 to hit would have helped.
The party got smart about the next encounter, with a mnemosyne. Basically a jellyfish with the constitution, size, and jaws of a crocodile… which feeds off of neural energy… from the severed heads it collects. It like to sit under water, where it’s mostly invisible, except that it’s got a half-dozen severed, babbling heads on stalks sticking out. Safe to say that it’s not actually all that good at being stealthy. The pool of water was down a staircase where each step was 3’… and water flowing down to make the footing just slick enough to notice. So, everybody with a ranged weapon took pot shots while the Glaive braced atop the stairs. Since it couldn’t really take cover… and might not understand the concept, I had it slowly climb up the seven steps. So they worked it down past half health when it started tearing into their meatshield. The fight was incredibly intense… because I’d not really stressed enough how the damage system worked. The fighter almost ran out of points in her Might pool. Characters have Might, Speed, and Intellect… but losing one pool just leaves you a bit shaken. Effort costs one more point and those critical success rolls only gain +1 damage. For how she was fighting, this would not have impacted her fighting ability. In 4th ed terms, she was afraid of becoming bloodied. Running out of 2 pools would have her unable to fight. 3 is lethal.
We ended the first session with the party taking… basically all of their day’s recovery rolls to get back up to full.
This gave me a great chance to review the system and the adventure… now that I knew how the party was playing, and what to expect. I wasn’t happy. The adventure had some flaws. The woman to rescue… in addition to being one of the dead heads on the mnemosyne’s tendrils… wasn’t actually named. She had clearly assembled a nice device to seal the cracks in the final room, and had a few journal scraps pointing out its existence… she died trying to save her town, and still managed to give the party what they needed… but it’s her widower who gets a name. Although, this did make it kind of awesome that his name is what the head babbles, rather nicely cluing the party in on her fate.
That’s not half as bad as the remaining combats. My guys were struggling to deal with a lv 5… the most obvious door lead to a robot that was also lv 5, with enough armor to ignore most of the party’s weapons, and two shields, making hitting it a lv 7 task. So the party would have to spend effort to drop that to lv 6, to be able to hit it on an 18, 19, or 20. There was a button/weak spot that would cause it to drop its shields, but that would not have made it a fair fight. And in the final room, a lv 6 “Travonis Ul” which I’d describe as “What a shoggoth draws when it’s writing tentacle porn.” It hits hard, and it can hit everybody at once… and with a crazy pile of hit points. Either this adventure was intended for higher-tier characters… or better equipped ones, at least.
So I made… one change. I upgraded the journal left by “Betty” as we named her. Now, the party knew which door had the killer robot. That’s really all I had to do. The doomsayer expedition was heard going through the main room as the party finished looting the non-functional control panels of a side room… and the party followed cautiously.
For some reason, the thing this group rolls insanely well on, is any kind of perception roll. The first session, they made the improbable discovery of a hatch that would bypass the first puzzle (which they’d figured out, but didn’t want to waste hours of hard labor at)… and this time, spotting the (rather easier) control to shut off the video-game-y flame jet making the main corridor a bit tricky. The party avoided the robot room, and took… the deathtrap of shinies. But the Jack made her save against possession, which would have terribly nerfed her reward. The party then saved her employer, which also helped. As I’d hoped, going into the last room, the party opened the back door to the robot guardian, and stunned the tentacle horror… used one of their cyphers to manipulate the button on the robot, and left both monsters to duke it out while they got the battered boss out, and tracked down the molecular bonding artifact.
At this point, when they found the very angry tentacle horror standing triumphant over the robot… they didn’t hold back. Someone threw webbing to keep the beast in place, and those with ranged weapons held back. Since the two monsters had been pretty even on damage output after considering armor, I just subtracted the hit points of the robot from those of the beast. That left it weak enough for the party to be quite assured of victory.
So… naturally, that’s when I finally pull out a GM Intrusion. The system allows and encourages the GM to spice things up now and then, with interesting complications. The victim gains an XP to keep, and one to bestow on a colleague, and suffers. Or can pay one XP to not have the problem. I didn’t apply a lot of imagination, as the one from the book was nasty enough. Swallowed/engulfed by the great mouth on the big tentacle. Since I was doing this to the most heavily armored party member, the 10 points of damage was mitigated down to 7. In this system, you start with about 34 points between the three pools. Seven points stings. She did manage to escape on her first attempt, which was surprising. I was expecting the party to finish the beast well before her demise, but need to cut her out of it.
In defiance of all the hentai jokes at the table, it was actually the woman that penetrated the tentacle. Go ahead, get it out of your system.
Enough XP was gained for everyone to buy a little advancement. And enough cyphers were recovered for the players to choose what to keep. The initial rolls at creation had resulted in some… pretty lackluster items. A “permanent handle” is quite tricky to picture circumstances where it’s vital. Water-repellant plates are even harder to place. The seven gained through a really nice salvage roll gave the party a lot more power… and options. The difference was mostly in the extra cypher splat pdf I’d gotten. The main book had much better gear, at least, the way the dice were rolling.
While the adventure called for the party to gain an xp if they figured out they were running around in a crashed spaceship… other than the room with the good loot having a viewscreen showing dirt with some tunnels in… I don’t think there was anything in the adventure that would clue anybody in. At all.
Overall, a lot of fun was had, and we’ve all gotten over the fairly mild learning curve of the system. I think I’ll be starting everyone on the Devil’s Spine campaign next… partly because it’s fun, but also partly because it feels like a good tour of a few key points of the world. I can see what the group wants more details on, and give them, well… what they want. Our Nano of Borg wants to know what it would take to make him deal a point of damage whenever he gets hit… it’s completely doable, and makes sense. Just have to figure out what would be appropriate to build something like that. It’ll probably become the next adventure hook I dangle.