Numenera: Mechanics

If you were trying to determine the mechanics of Numenera from the computer RPG, you’d get thrown pretty wide of the mark. Torment: Tides (as I call it, because I’m on good terms with it) give you a taste of the Cypher system, with its pools and its tiers of character development, but it’s still a modification of the Pillars of Eternity engine and so it is understandable that it isn’t a fully fledged computerization of a Cypher system game. I’d still recommend checking it and PoE out.

This is the nice part of the game, the part that doesn’t look like a town on the inside of a butthole. Buttholetown has its moments too though, I guess.

Having picked up the Starter Set… and the Rulebook… and a boxed set of the Cards used… and a book of ten quick adventures… I’ve started to wrangle with the soft and yielding rules mechanics. If Pathfinder is a complex crystalline labyrinth, Numenera’s Cypher system is a shapeless, yet warm blanket-fort. They’re a good deal less stringent and comprehensive than most games I’ve run and played, but there’s a few games looming in the back of my mind that I want to try one day: Fiasco and Dusk City Outlaws (still kinda sounds like a retirement home biker gang, but I’m still excited to play it) that head down the same road and easing up on rules heavy system seems like a good plan.

All roleplaying games insist that they’re about the story and a lot of newer roleplaying games insist that they’re about the story so much that they don’t want rules to get in the way. Which I guess is fine, but there’s something about the militancy that some people strike back against super-structured, rules heavy games that I don’t quite trust. I get it: we want to tell good stories. But if rules didn’t help do that – provide a structure and at least somewhat consistent set of consequences for actions – we may as well just sit around and bullshit. Which is fine, nothing wrong with that. But the fun of playing roleplaying games is that they are still games, not improv sessions (yes, and I know improv games have structure of their own) and the shared understanding of how the world is supposed to work (by playing by an agreed set of rules which help describe that world) is what helps build the world, not just the flair for storytelling of any given individuals.

“For god’s sake Penelope, there’s functionally no difference between a Lucerne Hammer and a Bec-de-Corbin, I’m trying to evoke a world of fucking whimsy here.”

I’m okay with games moving away from the pedantry of, for example, arguments about whether a katana should do the same damage as a broadsword. This kind of nonsense has plagued games for too long. Even good ol’ Call of Cthulhu has had rulebooks and supplements that detail all manner of firearms available to the investigator – players can purchase them, practice with them, take them along on an investigation, use them and then realise in horror that they do nothing to The Shapeless Form From Beyond The Stars in front of them. It’s basically a big detailed table of ‘What Do You Want Them To Find On Your Corpse?’.

So when Monte Cook appears in the short video “How to play Numenera” and tells me the game is all about story-telling and that he doesn’t want rules to get in the way, I’m skeptical until I actually see whether the rules he does have look like fun to play. Even though Monte Cook clearly knows what the fuck he is talking about. So, here’s a run down of the basic mechanics of Numenera and you can decide if they seem like fun to you or not.

  • The core of the mechanics is the d20 roll. The charming and debonair GM tells the player what their target number is for a difficulty roll, the player rolls it. Lower than the difficulty, they fail; higher, they succeed.

Well, that’s it, thanks for reading everyone!

No, but really, that is the core – almost everything else revolves around affecting that roll. And there are a bunch of different things that do that.

But how does the GM come up with that number? Well, a lot of times it’s dictated by the level of the opponent. For example a Margr is a second level creature. It’s a violent goat-headed savage – It’s a beastman. Like a GW Fantasy beastman. That’s amazing news for me, because I have a ton of those minis. Since it is a 2nd level opponent, the suave and generous GM multiplies its level by 3 to reckon the difficulty of just about everything. You have to roll a 6 or higher on a d20 to hit the Margr in combat. The Margr has 6 hit points. You have to roll 6 to sneak past it. 6 to avoid its attacks. 6 to beat it at Chess, probably. 6 to Intimidate it.

Beastmen were always my favourite bad guys.

There are variations, of course. Each creature/monster/villain/whatever is going to have it’s own strong suits. Margr, to continue the example, resist being deceived as a level higher and are good at climbing and jumping. Some creatures are incredibly specialized. But in general, the level of opponent determines the difficulty of the roll.

What if there is no opponent, or the opponent is… a rock face, or a juggling trick? Well, in that case the patient and inspiring GM chooses a value between 1 and 10, multiplies it by three and that’s your target d20 roll. Of course this means that 7 through 10 are impossible to achieve without something to help you along. So what can help you along?

  • Skills for a start. A PC can be Trained in a skill, which drops the difficulty step by 1, i.e. a whole 3 points. Pretty good. Specializing in the skill drops it by two steps. If you were Specialized in Stealth, sneaking past a Margr would be so easy you wouldn’t have to roll for it. Untrained, meanwhile, means you add a step of difficulty.
  • Effort, is another, relatively unusual feature of the Cypher system. Each character is made up of three pools – Might, Speed and Intellect. These three pools… um… pooled are your hit points. Run out of one pool and you are in a bad way. Run out of two and you are in a super bad way. Run out of three and you are dead. This means, weirdly, that someone with only 1 Might, 1 Speed and 1 Intellect remaining is still firing on all cylinders. As well as being your hit points, players can also expend these pools as Effort to decrease the difficulty of a task. So if you are armwrestling a Margr, your target d20 roll is 6 or better, but you want to really make sure you beat this goat-headed jerk, you spend from your Might pool (3 points for the first step decrease, 2 for every step after that) ┬áto make sure you succeed. Are you depleted? Sure, a little, but I’m sure it was worth it. Special character abilities, like spells or special attacks also take points from your pool, so you’ve gotta pick your moments.
  • Edge: Characters start with and develop Edges in certain pools. Whenever you spend a point, the Edge is your permanent discount. Cast a spell that normally costs 1 Intellect, but you have 1 Edge in Intellect? That spell is free because you are so clever, no matter what anyone says. Each point of edge gets you a discount on your Effort spent too. Get 3 points of Edge and you basically get to spend Effort for free. Whee! It’d take a while though.
  • Sidenote: Everyone can heal their own pools by resting. This is nice because it doesn’t force anyone into a healer role. PCs can heal themselves, but the length of time it takes to recover your pools gets longer each time, from 1 action, to 10 minutes, to an hour, to ten hours; all to get the same range of hit/pool points back (d6 plus your characters Tier, so d6+1 for starting characters).
  • Assets are the other thing that might help you along. Climbing a wall is easier if you brought the right gear, but a lot of items are just +1 to your roll, which is cool, but not as good as knowing what you are doing; tinhorns beware. The other big asset source are the cyphers: if you have a cypher that allows you to levitate, that climb roll is going to be real easy.

The only thing that annoys me a little is the difference between things that modify difficulty steps and things that modify the roll itself. That could be a bit clearer, I guess. Maybe I’ll pick that up when we play.

So those are the bones of the system. Anyone notice what isn’t mentioned in any of those? Oppositional rolls. The GM doesn’t roll dice. Mostly. You only find out if you get hit by a Margr if you fail your roll to evade its attack, not after waiting to watch me roll the die and cackle at your misfortune. And then laughing cos your guy died and I killed him. And then calling you when you get home to find out if you are crying because I killed your mans.

This is a real move into the “Oh, I’m just the GM, spinning a big ol’ tale of which we’re all a fabulous part!” territory, but I like it. It simplifies everything and puts the players in the driving seat for… everything.

So what does the GM do? Well, one of the interesting things the GM gets to do is dish out Intrusions. If you roll a 1 on a d20, the GM gets to give you and Intrusion; a misfortunate twist on the failure. But during the course of the game, whenever his malice glands are filled to bursting or just when he thinks of some cool twist, the GM gets to offer an Intrusion to the player who will be most effected. They describe what the Intrusion will be – the rope breaks unexpectedly, the Margr out of nowhere crane kicks your needle gun out of your hand, etc. And then coquettishly slides two XP cards across the table. If you accept the Intrusion and decide to deal with it, you take those two XP cards, keep one and pass one on to a worthy ally. These XP cards are used to buy character advancement (incrementally, so there’s changes to your character between ‘levelling up’ which is nice) or to refuse offered Intrusions. So you can be like, uh-uh, not this time and block the crane kick and everyone thinks you’re cool, but not as cool as that time you gave them free XP.

Those are the basics. There are a few other things that are new to me about the system, like the lack of a definitive skill list, that are probably worth going over, but I’ll get to Character Creation after I go over Combat a bit and probably after we actually get a game in.