Numenera: Play test 1

Okay, so we got our first run through of the Numenera Starter Set yesterday. Rolland and I joined the Tallens and played through at least a part of the intro adventure. Recap after the cut; spoilers obviously, if you ever plan to pick up the Starter Set and play it. I feel like spoilers for loose scenarios aren’t quite as damaging as those for tightly wound on-rails scenarios, but still…

The Starter set is a good idea; even if not all of it works perfectly. For a smaller amount of money, you get all the main chunks of the rules in the gorgeous Main Rulebook, the same equality art and a few extra things thrown in. Are you getting the 90+ pages of background and setting? No. Full Character Generation stuff? No. But certainly enough to play the game comfortably for a while and all the basic building blocks to create your own stuff.

There are two books in the Starter set: Book 1, rules and background and Book 2, the scenario and some GM stuff. You could take these and run a game no problem.

The extras are high-colour pregenerated characters, a poster map, XP cards and a few GM intrusion cards, to give the GM a running start. Oh, and a d20 and d6. These are less vital to the game and a bit, meh. I can see what they were going for, with great production values, it just didn’t impress me for a few reasons.

  • The Character Sheets are beautiful, full colour, with evocative depictions of the characters and all the information you need to get started quickly, neatly and clearly laid out. As I mentioned previously, the actual official Numenera character sheet is deliberately made to look a lot more complicated than it really is and they bypassed that for beginners, which I think is sensible. The big downside to these pregen sheets is the type of paper it is printed on, semi-glossy stuff that doesn’t easily take pencil and won’t allow it to be erased properly if it ever does. Pen might work okay, but what kind of monster plays a RPG with a pen? Thinking about the paper, ballpoints wouldn’t even work too well. I just photocopied them and if I had access to a colour photocopier, I wouldn’t have cared. It’s just a disappointing oversight.
  • The Poster Map is… why? Who is going to look at this poster map? Who is to be impressed by its scale? Players? You can’t give players a map of something before they explore it if your game is all about exploration. Give it to them afterward? As a trophy? For reasons that will become clear, it’s not even a complete map nor a particularly beautiful one. There are a few in-scenario artifacts that it could have been. Or even just a boss copy of some of the art in the rule book to get us all in the mood. Or a map of the known world.
  • The Cards are unequivocally good. I can see why they gave GM Intrusion cards to beginners, because it takes some of the pressure off new GMs to come up with something. The XP cards are technically unnecessary, but I kind of like that they’re a tangible thing; a temptation to slide across the table during an intrusion or a small reward to be handed out between players.

I talked a little bit about the game and a tiny amount about the setting with the players before we started, but preceded that by rambling on about the type of game that it is and mostly how the dynamics are different from say, Pathfinder. I was particularly inspired by listening to the One Shot podcast’s three-part play of Numenera because I can’t really remember the GM, Darcy Ross, ever saying no to the players. She just rolled with every suggestion, no matter how dumb or jokey and managed to spin it into something playable. She did a phenomenal job of not squashing ideas and the players obviously had a blast. That’s a level of freedom in cooperative story-telling that hasn’t been explicitly encouraged in other RPGs I’ve played. The margins are so tight in other games that there is always a GM suspicion that the players are going to wheedle some wee bonus or leverage out of anything over which they are given control.

  • Example: If a PC arrives in a settlement and goes looking for street food, do I have to make up what kind of street food they have here? No, of course not. So if the PC wants to tell me that they found these amazing mushroom dumplings, cool. That’s fine, from now on, this is a town that has a particular cuisine and probable mushroom farming industry. So they probably have caves. And they probably have a lot of mushroom farmers. Maybe mushroom themed festivals. An illicit (or celebrated) market in psychedelic/poisonous ‘shrooms. And so on and so on, the flavour and detail of the town get fleshed out by this small input from the player, because as GM I have no vested interest in making this town NOT-mushroom capital of the Beyond, or whatever.

I think we managed to get in that spirit pretty well. It’s the kind of thing that will probably take a while, but I think there’s cool stuff that can be done with a system that invites everyone playing it to have a bit more input.

Okay, nothin’ but spoilers below. Warned.

Recap:

  • Rolland – Caris, a swift Glaive who wields two weapons at once.
  • Noe – Kalain, a strong Glaive who wears a sheen of ice.
  • Ben – Faroon, a stealthy Jack who explores dark places.

The trio currently trekking through The Beyond have an unusual… bond (?) Kalain was freed from prison by Caris, at the behest of Kalain’s sister. But the two were tracked down by Faroon, who was persuaded not to turn them in by a mutual acquaintance… so we have a bounty hunter, her quarry and his rescuer. All living in, if not harmony, then at least personal indifference.

Faroon, who may or may not be lying… a lot of the time.

Hiking through the hilly wilderness, in the middle of a mild spore storm, the travellers found a broad stream that looked like it would be a good stop for water. As more of the stream came into view, however, they saw that it was partially interrupted by a structure of some sort: an elliptically-based building of metal and synth. Interested, they made their way closer to it when Faroon heard the sound of several voices raised in argument, coming from a nearby copse.

As they watched and waited a small group of people in yellow robes appeared from the wooded area, hauling sacks and boxes and bickering between themselves. Upon being hailed by Faroon, the bickering ceased and the group broke into a sprint towards the weird-stream blocking structure, toting their unwieldy bags behind them. Caris broke into a run (which, since she is swift, she is very good at) and arrived at the structure at the same time as the yellow robed people did. She leapt up the nearly smooth sides  and pulled herself on top. The yellow-robes were frantic now, with one stocky, gruff-voiced man barking orders and two others pulling out hand weapons and circling the structure.

Attempts to engage and stall the yellow-robes didn’t work directly, but the players were chastised for desecrating a holy place by a couple of indignant yellow-robes before a door appeared in the side of the structure and they were all ordered inside. The door closed and *poof* the structure straight up disappeared, leaving a briefly gaping hole in the stream. Caris plummeted into the surging water, but managed to right herself without injury.

Caris, really rolling with the jumping training.

Kalain spotted a burlap bag, left behind in the rush to get in the door. It contained some sumptous tubers, some candles, some rope and – nestled on top – a leather bound book. Taking a breather, they investigated the book – a mixture of nonsensical devotional text, a timetable and a map. Each page detailed a point on a sketched map, along with times and dates. By studying the book, they figured out that the current location was featured on one page and the time of departure (roughly) was noted. If their suspicions were correct, the structure was due to reappear in about ten days time, about 60 miles away, more or less NNE of this location. After that, its next stop was 180 miles away. Kalain figured out that this structure hops about from one place to the next, even far beyond the areas of civilization with which they are familiar. And sometimes… it’s nowhere at all.

Kalain maybe wasn’t the guy to do the heavy thinking on this navigation book, but he did okay.

Trekking on, now with a particular location in mind, they carried on across the rolling landscape and as dusk fell, they spotted the lights of a small village: Jutte. For a few shins they were able to secure a clean, basic room for the night at the simple tavern and pick up on a few bits of tavern gossip, from the amiable tuber farmers of the area.

  • The jerks in the yellow robes had been in town the day before being real a-holes. They weren’t caught doing anything illegal, although a few of the merchants are sure they stole things from the small, simple market.
  • There may be a monster in the nearby lake – opinions were divided. The Dreavish brothers had both gone missing and they fished the lake. When one farmer mate of theirs went to look for them, he was spooked by an eerie babble of voices and never found the brothers.

The explorers offered to look over the lake for them for a small reward and the skeptical farmers insisted it would be a small reward indeed, but agreed to at least shout them a few drinks. With 10 days and only 60 miles between them and the next appearance of the weird location hopping building, they had time to kill.

Sure enough, they found the source of the Dreavish brothers’ disappearance: a Mesomeme had taken up residence in the lake. The creature was a large hard-shelled crustacean, but their first glimpse of it was of several heads – some obviously long dead – bobbing to the surface of the cloudy lake water and then babbling at them.

It’s an obligate cerebrovore (?) – Grab the butter!

Confident in its thick carapace, it rushed the squishy hu-mans standing knee deep in its lake, the severed heads on its back pulled along, bleating and agitated. Kalain instantly activated his Ice Armour, coating himself in a flexible layer of frozen plates. Good thing he did too, because after the first few tentative exchanges, the other Glaive – Caris – figured out that her light weapons weren’t going to be able to do much, backed out of melee and pulled out her crossbow.

Faroon and Kalain laid into the thing with sword and staff, while in turn the Mesomeme tried pincering them. Caris sunk a bolt in between the layers of chitin, reloaded and then put another one beside it. Faroon evaded an attack and kicked mud into the creature’s… face? Facebits? It put it off it’s stride for a bit anyway.

Kalain was knocked on his back into the lake, then recovered, before falling facedown. As the brain-digesting crustacean pounced, Faroon put a well placed crossbow bolt into its squishy bits before Caris whipped out one of her cyphers and torched the monster with a scorching ray.

Kalain had taken some big blows while tanking the monster, so recovered himself at the edge of the lake. Caris and Faroon were already thinking of ways to cook this thing and hauled it out of the lake, severing the tendrils with the rotting, now silent, heads.

They found the remains of the Dreavishes rowboat, some fishing gear and …pause while we generate a cypher… an occultic matter disruption detonator. What the fishermen were doing with that, we can only speculate. Since it is a powerful occultic cypher, Caris had to get rid of one to stay under her limit and not tempt cypher sickness, so she used her injection of being-good-at-whatever to make her good at hauling the Mesomeme’s delicious, delicious corpse back to Jutte. Then she took the detonator.

Tuuuuuuubers!

Once back in Jutte they were welcomed as surprise heroes and the Mesomeme-boil got underway. There was plenty of meat to go around and the explorers didn’t pay for a drink all night. The village of Jutte now has a very interesting trophy on the wall of their small tavern. (The heads of the Dreavish brothers were also returned… but no-one quite knew what to do with them). One party later and the explorers hit the trail NE the next day, having recovered from the effort of putting the monster down. (Mostly Kalain, recovering from the bruising he’d endured.) Over the next few days they strolled on up country, into the hills where they believed the structure to appear.

They found an elliptical cut in the hillside that matched the dimensions of the building they had seen. With a day or two to kill, they set up camp, recovered some shins from some sort of nearby quarry equipment, strategized about what to do when the building showed up and Caris had set up foot traps all over the hillside below where they thought the door would appear. Kalain, meanwhile had figured out how to open the door. No, really, he totally had.

With a pop, the building showed up right on time and the explorers were ready to pounce (Kalain, higher up the slope) or fire crossbows from hidden locations (Caris/Faroon) if anyone appeared. The door appeared in the side of the metal and synth curve, and streaking out in a panicked, wild sprint; a single yellow robed figure.

“La la la running through the meadow… fuuuuck my aaaaankle!”

Caris lined up a shot, but held on while the figure ran down the hillside, tripping and tumbling on one of the many foottraps. Kalain bounded down the slope as the figure scrambled back to its feet and nailed it with an expert tackle. The diminutive figure had the fight knocked right out of them instantly. Upon examination, Kalain had taken down a teenage girl, panicked and sobbing, clutching a fork-tipped rod in her hand. “Let me go! Let me go! They’re coming for me!” she begged.

That’s where we stopped.

…in butter.

It’ll be a few weeks before we can continue, but I’m looking forward to it already. I’ve tried to make a list of things I was happy with and things I wasn’t and it’s very lopsided. That was a fun game to be in.

Good:

  • Pretty much everything. Generally happy with how everything went. Thanks guys!
  • No real rules-lookup slow downs. Players did a very good job of picking up the new system.
  • I was tickled that we gender-flipped at character creation, with Noe playing the only male PC and Rolland and Ben choosing the two female PCs. I don’t know why.
  • There were some really great lines of PC dialogue that I wish I had noted down. I almost always avoid pregen characters when I play, but it was really fun seeing what the players did with them, especially in light of the interesting relationship between the three.
  • Particularly pleased when Noe initiated a bit of flavour action. I can’t remember what it was, but it was one of those things that I was preparing to say “Well, how do you think that could go?” but Noe beat me to it and suggested how something could have gone. That’s great.
  • The monster deck cards are good; I was able to show everyone what a Mesomeme looked like and had everything I needed to know on the other side. Very useful.

Could do better:

  • I should have filled in the hike a bit better. The landscape is full of weird and wonderful things, but I just blanked when it came to that. Sure, it was important that we get on with things, but I should have improvised some of the weird and strange things that are typical of the Ninth World. As soon as I was driving home, I thought of a bunch of things I could have filled the travel time with.
  • I didn’t GM Intrude as much as I should. The GM Intrusion I did do – that Kalain is absolutely convinced that he knows how to open the door – I’m happy with. It’s going to mess up what should be a relatively easy process and also going to cast the teenage girl’s story in a completely different light (because Kalain mistakenly believes she is lying: I’m looking forward to Noe roleplaying mansplaining to this girl who knows how to open the door). But there should be a few GM Intrusions a session – in one of our sessions, 3 or 4. Not putting those in sort of robs players of XP – or at least the opportunity to get XP. I’ll have to get more in the mindset of actively changing things up with those.

 

 

 

2 Comments on “Numenera: Play test 1

  1. I really enjoyed this game for many of the reasons you mentioned. It’s easy to pick up, it’s so flexible that you’re not mired in rules, the setting is fascinating and pulls you in quickly. The biggest point for me is how collaborative it is. Not just with our fellow PCs but with the GM. As you said, it prevents us from needing to try and to outwit you and allows us to join in not just world-exploring but world-building. This is more like being in a play than any other RPG I’ve ever played, with GM as director and PCs who have to (sort of) stay within the confines of the script but get to work together to fill in the details.

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