Being very fond of isometric RPGs of the Infinity Engine era and prone to Kickstart things, I ended up piling in on the Torment: Tides of Numenera Kickstarter. In fact, I was so excited about it that I ended up pre-ordering Monte Cook’s Numenera tabletop RPG that the setting is licensed from. I now have a regret or two about this decision.
First off, the experience reminded me that pre-ordering anything which is going to be appearing in shops anyway is a mug’s game unless you’re going to get some exclusive goodies out of pre-ordering. Due to various delays Monte Cook Games didn’t start mailing out the UK’s pre-ordered books until a good month after the book hit the shelves of UK game shops. This is frankly absurd. Various excuses for the delay in postage had been offered some weeks in advance by Monte’s customer relations minion, the main one being that Monte’s dad had died a week before the release was due, but this is bunk – in a project of this size if your life turns upside down a week before project completion then it shouldn’t actually matter because you should have had all the arrangements in place anyway. This goes double for an operation like Monte Cook Games, who a) apparently have employees to help with the administrative side of things and whose parents presumably did not die at the same time as Monte’s and b) is trying to present itself as a professional operation rather than a solo self-publishing gig.
However, all that is in the past and the book is now mine. Having run one of the introductory adventures in it, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a keeper. Dan and Shimmin (1, 2) have already given their thoughts, but here’s mine.
Character Generation: The Worst of Both Worlds
Firstly, despite the decidedly old school class breakdown of “guy who has magic, guy who has punches, guy who has a bit of magic and a bit of punches” and the much-vaunted “pick a verb, adjective and a noun” character creation system, creating the party took a little longer than I anticipated. The issue is that each verb, noun and adjective chosen both carries with it a bunch of stuff you need to write down and a clutch of additional choices, so character creation isn’t remotely as fast as simply picking verbs, adjectives and nouns. Granted, a lot of the choices in question are from somewhat limited lists, but not all of them – Cypher choice is wide open, for instance, unless as we did you just have the GM roll randomly. Under the hood, then, this is still a game where tinkering with character builds is a thing, and the whole “noun/adjective/verb” thing, whilst evocative, rather disguises this. In fact, it represents a compromise which to me offers the worst of both worlds – sufficiently constrained to bug people who are into character customisation (why can’t I just have a free choice of where to assign my starting stats and what types of feat-like powers I can buy at game start?) but with enough fiddly bits to bug those who prefer fast, fluid character generation.
Game Mechanics: There’s Only One Dial, And It’s Crazily Sensitive
In terms of actual gameplay, though, the major issue I had was that in play the game does not offer the GM many tools when it comes to presenting challenges. Numenera famously delegates all the dice rolling to players, and that’s fine, but what it also does is reduce the mechanical side of presenting a challenge to deciding on a difficulty level from 1 to 10, which translates into a target number from 3 to 30.
The issue I have with this is that it is a very blunt and imprecise instrument. Yes, you can as GM introduce some variation – for instance, monsters may have special abilities or weaknesses which increase or reduce their associated difficulty level for some purposes – but aside from that, you are literally just throwing a number out there, and that is trickier than it looks. The difference both psychologically and in terms of cumulative effect between difficulty 3 and 4 is massive, for instance, because that is the point where you go from “PCs succeed more often than they fail on average” (55% chance of success) to “PCs fail more often than they succeed on average” (60% chance of failure!). In a single roll to accomplish a single task that may not be a huge deal, but is a big deal in combat, since often in RPG combat the main mechanical consideration is not “are you likely to hit this round?” but “are the party going to succeed regularly enough to do more damage to the enemy as a proportion of the enemy’s total health than the enemy does to the party as a proportion of the individual PCs’ total health?” In that sort of situation, where the result of an interaction comes down to the result of a series of rolls, the expected average rate of success is vastly more important than whether a particular roll was unusually successful or unlucky.
This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of the time in Numenera you are going to be rolling the same target number for defence as you are for attack. The upshot of this that, all else being equal, if you run into an enemy you have trouble hitting, you are also going to be having trouble protecting yourself from their attacks, and in RPG combat that puts you at a severe disadvantage.
Now, it should be noted that situational modifiers (including magic items – sorry, I mean Numenera) and character skill can drag down difficulty levels somewhat, but there is actually a game mechanical hard limit on how much this can help – skills can’t reduce difficulty by more than 2 steps, and situational modifiers can’t drag it down more than 2 steps. This is probably deliberate – 4 difficulty levels is the difference between level 3 (target number 9, probable success) and level 7 (target number 21, success actually impossible), or level 4 (target number 12, failure probably) and level 0 (target number 0, success automatic). However, this puts the GM in a real bind, because if they throw a situation of difficulty 1-4 at the players and they happen to have appropriate skills for the job it’s an unchallenging cakewalk, whilst if they pitch something with a difficulty of above 5 or so at the players and the players have no applicable skills and there genuinely isn’t any credible situational advantage that occurs to the players then the players get hosed. The sweet spot of appropriate difficulties is not just thin, but varies wildly depending on what skills the players have available.
In principle, the Effort mechanic can alleviate this, but as Dan has pointed out it isn’t remotely as useful as Monte thinks it is. The problem is particularly acute at first level, since there you can only use Effort to reduce a difficulty level by 1 and no more. This means that at difficulty 1-3 it isn’t usually worth using Effort because you will probably succeed anyway, and consequently you’re better off saving your Effort and at difficulty 5-7 your Effort is best saved for your defence rolls if you use it at all, because even if you spent it you would probably fail anyway, and at difficulty 8-10 your Effort is absolutely useless because it can’t reduce the difficulty of the task enough to make success possible.
Although the problem Dan identifies of Effort not actually being very useful if you run it as per the written rules is real, that at least can be easily houseruled away without really affecting the rest of the system through the simple expedient of letting people wait until they have rolled before they decide whether to use Effort. But that doesn’t change the fact that in the rules as written it doesn’t feel worth using Effort at first level unless it is to drag difficulty down from 4 (probable failure) to 3 (probable success) – especially in combat, since it should be remembered that combat is resolved by a series of rolls so the expected average rules the day far more often than not – and as Dan has demonstrated your Effort expenditure will almost certainly have been wasted if you do use it.
What makes this really irksome in combat is that your Effort pools are also your hit points, so if you throw a combat at the players where they need to use Effort at all then a) they probably need to use it for both attack and defence and b) they probably need to use it every round. This puts the players on a fast death spiral – and thanks precisely to the whole “players do all the rolls” mechanic, if you misjudge an encounter you can’t fudge the enemy’s rolls to give the players a fighting chance, so you either have to suck up the TPK or go “Oh, er, did I say that was difficulty 5? I mean difficulty 3”, neither of which is necessarily a satisfying or interesting solution. (Old schoolers would probably grouse that you should man up and eat the fucking TPK, though equally I don’t see old school ideologues being particularly comfortable with stuff like Numenera‘s Effort and GM Intrusion mechanics due to them being largely metagame in nature.)
Now, you could alleviate this by good adventure design, tailoring encounter difficulty to the PCs’ skills and incorporating plentiful opportunity for players to twist circumstances to their advantage. Equally, you can solve it through lenient refereeing, being nice about what skills the players can bring to bear in a particular situation and what schemes would actually work. However, both of those things hinge on the players actually spotting the opportunities to use skills or get situational advantages, and even if they are on the ball this evening (not something you can guarantee) it still feels like you kind of have to pull your punches since you mechanically have this narrow window to work in.
It could, of course, be that these problems were exacerbated by the fact that we were running with a sample adventure from the core book, The Beale of Boregal. If I had homebrewed or improvised something based on the PCs the players created, it would have been somewhat smoother because I could have tailored things to the PCs. But I didn’t, and I tried to run the adventure as written as much as possible because I wanted to playtest Numenera as it was presented. In addition, I foolishly assumed that the character class breakdown of “fighty dude, magicy dude, kind of fighty kind of magicy dude” would, if the players chose one of each, result in a balanced party. This wasn’t quite the case, at least not for this adventure, wherein whether or not anyone happened to pick out any form of telepathy at character generation makes the difference between the final encounter yielding a ballcrushingly difficult fight or an opportunity to beat the adventure without a boss battle. This is another instance where the character generation let us down, I think, since it is restrictive enough to make you think it probably guarantees a well-rounded party but open enough that it actually doesn’t. Admittedly, one player was going for way more Dying Earth whimsy than the game seems intended to support, on the other hand since The Dying Earth is specifically hyped as an influence on the game I feel it really could do with being more indulgent of player whimsy instead of character optimisation.
GM Intrusion: Not Necessary, Badly Implemented, Wildly Inconsistent and Not Even Intrusion
Another difficulty I had with the sample adventure is the GM Intrusion mechanic. This is an idea which is a lot like the “compel” mechanic in FATE, except tied to the in-game situation instead of a character’s Aspects (obviously, since Numenera does not include a mechanic analogous to Aspects themselves). Essentially, this is where the GM throws in an additional complication and to compensate the player involved gives them 2 XP – one to keep, and one to give to one of the other players. You can override an intrusion and prevent it from happening by spending an XP, but since this leaves you 2 XP down and one other player 1 XP down from where you would be had you accepted the Intrusion, there’s little point refusing unless the Intrusion would utterly fuck over the party, or you find it offensive on an OOC level, or you find it so tiresome or irritating you would rather lose XP than deal with it. (Mild quibble: is it really Intrusion if you can tell the GM to fuck off? I thought the point of “intrusion”, as a concept, is that it isn’t consensual.)
I can sort of see the reasoning behind this mechanic, but I think it is profoundly flawed. In principle, this sort of mechanic on the one hand encourages GMs to get proactive and throw a few curveballs at the players whilst simultaneously both giving the players an incentive to take such interventions with good grace by giving them XP for rolling with it as well as giving the players a mechanism for saying to the GM “actually, I really don’t fancy going down this route” by allowing them to buy off the Intrusion. However, I don’t think it will actually have the effect it’s intended to have; I think instead it will encourage GMs to get sloppy about how often they throw in Intrusions, on the basis that “Hey, if they don’t like it they can spend XP to cancel it”, whilst at the same time providing a mechanical disincentive to players from objecting to the GM’s shenanigans by saying “Well, you can refuse this, but you’ll be stiffing one of your other players by denying them the XP you would have otherwise given them”.
It’s a clumsy, mechanical attempt at a solution to problems which I think are better addressed through non-mechanical means. If your GM is being too predictable or isn’t throwing in enough of their own curveballs into the mix for your tastes, tell them. If you as a GM think you want to be more proactive and impose more of your ideas on the action, just fucking do it and judge how it goes down and get feedback and adjust accordingly. If you want to get a read on whether the players are sick of your curveballs and just want to tackle a challenge straight for once, read the fucking feeling in the room, or if you honestly can’t tell whether they’re enjoying themselves or frustrated come right out and ask. If your GM is throwing a plot twist or curveball at you which is kind of frustrating or off-putting or offensive or uncomfortable to you – or, indeed, if you’d otherwise be fine with it but not tonight, not tonight of all stinking nights when you’re tired and pissed off at the world and just want to fucking accomplish something in the game because you came for catharsis this evening, not fucking curveballs and the run-around and plot twists and bullshit – ahem, as I was saying, if you really don’t want to deal with something the GM just threw into the game, you should feel able to just speak the fuck up and say as much and not feel that you have to pay for the privilege of doing so by tossing an XP chip back to the GM. (OK, some people who are very nervous about speaking up for themselves may theoretically find it easier to pass the XP chit back to the GM rather than speaking up, but in practice passing that chit is just as overt and unequivocal a rejection of what the GM’s trying to do as speaking out is, except actually it’s even more blunt and clumsy because it doesn’t offer any explanation of why you’re rejecting it – unless you speak out whilst you’re doing it, in which case why not just speak out and keep the chit?
For what it’s worth, I think the GM Compel mechanic in FATE is somewhat better because it’s tied in with the PCs’ Aspects, so it’s both congruent with the game’s general design principle of keeping the Aspects important and relevant and also encourages GMs to present challenges which engage with the PCs’ Aspects – and if the players have done a good job of choosing Aspects, they’d have picked ones which they are excited about and want to be challenged by. Consequently, I think it makes much more sense in the context of FATE and is actually performing a useful mechanical function there beyond mechanising something I’d prefer to handle directly.
Another respect that FATE GM Compels work much better than GM Intrusions here is that the actual impact on the game on them is consistent – your 1 FATE point from the compel carries with it a specific mechanical penalty for your next roll along with appropriate consequences in the in-game situation, later on you can use that selfsame FATE point to get a game mechanical advantage of a similar magnitude by invoking one of your Aspects in a positive fashion. Boom-bang, the transaction’s nice and fair and balanced and it’s all quite elegant. There is no corresponding mechanism here which sets the magnitude of a GM Intrusion, so you may get your 2XP for a really quite minor annoyance or a wildly disproportionately severe fuckover. Again, The Beale of Boregal suffers wildly from this. One suggested GM Intrusion is that a PC gets some voices in their head which don’t actually hurt very much and, provided the players play remotely competently, fade away reasonably quickly. Another suggested Intrusion is that in the terminal boss battle a PC gets actually taken over by the big boss and fights against the other PCs for 2 rounds.
That’s a huge deal. Having a PC turn around and fight the others is a disproportionately horrible thing to happen in most RPG systems (not only are you a man down, the bad guys are a man up). In this system, it could get absolutely crazy depending on how seriously the player takes the obligation to fight on behalf of the bad guy, if you give the player the freedom to decide how their character acts within that constraint, since they could just drop a sick powerful Cypher on the other players which could cause a major hurt – at least one of the players had a sufficiently-advanced-technology hand grenade, for instance. (If you don’t let the player in question control their character during those two rounds, then you’re basically asking them to sit out of the game for a while, and one of my guiding principles as a GM is that you never fucking tell a player they have to stop playing the game for a while when their PC is actually physically present and capable of action in the in-game situation.) Giving 2XP to the players for a brief irritation at one point and 2XP for a massive fuckover like this (or, indeed, 0XP – Intrusions can be triggered without giving the players XP if they roll a 1) – feels seriously inconsistent to me.
(Another inconsistency: why do the players get XP for GM Intrusions which take the form of spur-of-the-moment twists imposed by the GM during the session, but not through pre-planned screwovers and reversals of fortune which preplanned as part of scenario design? Why can I refuse a hose job which takes the form of a GM Intrusion but not a hosejob which is the result of the GM deciding in advance that my boss is going to betray me?)
Does Monte Cook Even Understand His Own Game?
(EDIT: This part is mildly inaccurate – see the comments, where I note that in fact Numenera does have a system for contested actions between PCs. Unfortunately, it’s tucked away in a tiny box somewhere rather than laid out nice and clearly in the basic rules, where you’d expect to find such a key mechanic. As Shimmin and I teased out in our discussion, there are very good reasons why contested actions between PCs may happen which have nothing to do with intra-party conflict or PVP murder, so I think that by relegating this to a tiny sidebox Cooke radically underestimates the importance of providing a mechanic for contested actions, to such an extent that it still makes me think “why do people look up to this gugy as a rockstar game designer again?”)
Actually, this aspect of The Beale of Boregal exposes a far greater flaw of the system than the inconsistency with which GM Intrusions are treated. Specifically, Numenera does not offer any system for contested actions between PCs, which means that if as happens here a PC is forced to fight against the other players you basically have to come up with a PC-vs-PC combat system on the fly. The PC-vs-NPC system doesn’t apply – PCs do not have associated challenge levels that NPCs do, which means the usual combat system just doesn’t work. I mean, you could improvise some way to do it on the fly, I guess, but given that no less than the life of the player character who’s mind-controlled and whichever PCs they are fighting are on the line, coming up with a fair one is essential, so you better pray that the system you come up with doesn’t hose one side or the other.
Now, for some people this may not be a problem – lots of folks don’t like the idea of PVP bloodshed and therefore won’t miss losing the capability to run such combats. (That said, such people have a big “fuck you” to them in Numenera by one of the sample adventures in the core book directly advocating a situation where this would take place.) But equally, I can come up with all sorts of examples of situations where a group of player characters who consistently work co-operatively and aren’t ever going to actually try to kill each other may still want a system for contested rolls between PCs. What happens when two PCs decide to spar who sees who is strongest? What happens if the PCs have joined a contest individually, to maximise the chances of one of them winning, and multiple PCs reach the grand final? What happens if a brash, impulsive PC decides to do something obviously foolish, and the other PCs scramble to restrain them from completing this action? To all these questions, Numenera has the same answer: “fucked if I know”.
Of course, some games survive perfectly happily with gaps in their system. Early editions of Dungeons & Dragons have no universal task resolution mechanic at all. But I actually think that situation is much more tenable than what you have here. By offering no universal task resolution mechanic, D&D challenges GMs to come up with ways to resolve situations not accounted for by the rules on the spot, and if improvising a resolution mechanic for a situation on the spot is the norm for a game system it’s much more acceptable for the resolution of a contested action to be based on some criterion the referee made up on the spot.
However, Numenera is such a game. Numenera is a game built around a universal task resolution mechanic, from a co-designer of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons – the game which took the idea of universal task resolution mechanics and recast them as being almost essential and at the very least commonly expected components of tabletop RPGs. Here, the gap is an inexcusable one because it knocks out an entire category of action, making what is presented as a universal task resolution mechanic actually substantially less than universal.
On top of this, there’s an issue of professionalism raised by the omission: if The Beale of Boregal was subjected to any form of playtesting, why didn’t the issue of the potential PC-vs-PCs fight come up? Hell, if Monte Cook can’t look over that idea and say to himself “Wait, shit, I haven’t given any thought into how PC-vs-PC fights are meant to work, how do I resolve this?”, I honestly question whether he deserves the lofty reputation as a shit-hot rockstar game designer he’s somehow attained. He may or may not craft interesting settings, but apparently left on his own he can’t craft a universal resolution mechanic which isn’t missing an entire load-bearing wall.
I Already Have Some Very Developed Ideas About What I Want In My Dying Earth/Dancers At the End of Time Settings and Numenera Doesn’t Deliver Them
A more minor issue I have with the game is that the setting feels like such a personal vision that I feel like a trespasser in it when I run it. There’s a lot of material which feels flat to me which I suspect feels much more interesting and evocative in Monte’s hands – the politics of the nations of the Place seemed like they should be important but I didn’t come away with a strong idea of how it all hangs together, and I don’t get the point of the Nibovian Wife except to act as a bizarre “gotcha” trap to pointlessly punish any PC who dares to have casual sex with strangers. (Don’t you know that’s an alignment infraction?)
When Empire of the Petal Throne came out back in 1975 some expressed the opinion that whilst Tekumel was an impressive setting, only M.A.R. Barker (its designer) could really run it. Back then, people were weirded out by how culturally unfamiliar the setting was and the (for the time) high level of worldbuilding detail, and I don’t think those are barriers to running Tekumel, but equally I think the Tekumel flavour is so specific that you would really need to be Barker to get it across – and whilst a skilled GM could deliver something analogous, it wouldn’t be Barker’s Tekumel, it would be theirs. In this particular case, Numenera is never quite going to mean to me what it does to Cook, and whilst naturally I’m capable of making the setting my own in practice my version of it would be so much like the Dying Earth I might as well just run the actual Dying Earth RPG. (Well, it might end up resembling Moorcock’s Dancers At the End of Time instead, but I wouldn’t use a system like this for a setting like that.)
And make no mistake, the setting is a major part of Numenera, with a quarter of the book taken up with the gazetteer of the world, 10% taken up with descriptions of the Cyphers, Artifacts and Oddities which make up the “numenera” themselves – bits of old tech sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic which are the defining feature of the setting, an eighth taken up with descriptions of monsters and NPCs unique to the setting, and a little under a tenth taken up with sample adventures – so on the whole a little over half the book is next to useless unless you actually intend to use or draw on the game’s setting. Combine that with the fact that all the nouns and most of the verbs you can pick at character creation are closely tied to the setting and you have a book which I honestly couldn’t recommend getting unless you are very interested in the gameworld or intend to use the system for a gameworld very similar to the one presented here, and don’t consider any of the other issues I’ve outlined above to be a problem.
As it stands, I may well not even keep hold of my Numenera book. Considering how riddled it is with worst-of-both-worlds compromises, I don’t know who the system is supposed to satisfy, but it certainly doesn’t work for me and I consider it woefully incomplete in critical respects. The setting draws on a bunch of stuff I’m really into – Dying Earth, Dancers At the End of Time, Book of the New Sun, Moebius’ Airtight Garage and all that lark – but precisely because I love that stuff so much (well, I could do without the lesser Dancers short stories but the core trilogy is unbeatable) I have very strong opinions about it, so I suspect the reason the Numenera setting ends up being frustrating to me is at least in part because it feels like Monte’s heterogeneous, tonally inconsistent grab-bag of stuff he likes from the various bits of source material, rather than a fully realised setting in its own right.
With respect to the criticisms the others have levelled, a cornucopia of responses:
- I think Dan is right on the money in respect of Numenera feeling like somebody’s homebrew. I suspect that this comes down to it essentially being a vanity project on Kickstarter; Cook is fairly open in the introduction that it’s a very personal vision of his and is undiluted by any commercial considerations. The side effect of being quite this true to your personal vision, of course, is that whilst you bat away those commercial considerations, you also abjure factors which might open out your vision to make it something of broader utility to a wider audience. This is fine for movies or music or books or whatever, because those are complete artifacts in themselves and require no creative or participatory activity on the part of the audience to experience beyond pushing “play” or turning to page 1, observing what is being presented to you, and thinking about it. An RPG, though, is nothing if it is not played, so I think it actually demands a certain level of accessibility, because the more ephemeral and difficult to grasp the game is the less likely it is any particular play group will actually be able to play it as intended.
- Both Dan and Shimmin highlight the Connections mechanic which tie the PCs into the gameworld, and as nice as that is it does seem weird that the sample adventures seem to provide no reasonable way to weave in those Connections, because you’d expect them to be significant at game start.
- I agree with Dan that the downside of having an absolutely freeform write-yer-own-skill skill system is that it doesn’t actually give you much idea of the setting and what’s expected of player characters. You can get away with this in stuff like Unknown Armies where you are supposed (at Street level, at least, where Unknown Armies is at its best in my opinion) to be normal people in a world superficially like our own, and even Unknown Armies apportions out a bunch of free skills which give you some grasp of what sort of stuff skills cover.
- Shimmin was impressed with how slick the system was; neither Dan nor I are, then again Shimmin has run a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign for more sessions than either of us have patience for so we may be coming from different places. (Aside to Shimmin: have you seen FATE Accelerated Edition? I think it does a better job than Numenera of providing a quick, simple, mostly-traditional RPG system with some fancified modern narrative mechanics slipped in for spice, and you can get an eBook version of it and the somewhat-meatier, more adaptable, more inclined to show you what’s under the hood FATE Core as pay-what-you-want downloads here.)
- Dan makes a good point that the fact that PCs and NPCs are not just built differently (one of the things I like the least about D&D 3rd Edition is the way it expects you to use statlines comparable to PC stats for every single damn monster) but also roll differently and interact with the system differently really highlights the fact that the PCs are PCs and the NPCs are NPCs, so the game seems like a bad fit for people who want to believe they are exploring a coherently visualised and internally consistent secondary creation in their RPG sessions. Which is quite bad for a book which devotes so much space to evoking a very specific secondary creation in terms which suggest that a major point of this game is to explore that gameworld.
Criticisms aside, though, I think the Numenera system could be usable in something like a gamebook – or, perhaps, even a computer game – precisely because it eliminates all GM-side dice rolling, and because in a solo experience like a gamebook or CRPG you wouldn’t have the PVP issue.