King Arthur Pendragon

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Numenera - First Impressions

Last Saturday I got to run a small session of Numenéra. In case you have been living under a rock, Numenéra is the new roleplaying game by Monte Cook. Set a billion of years in the future, after the rise and fall of nine unimaginably advanced civilizations, the game is about a world littered with these pieces of numenera - remnants of technology from those previous civilizations - that the people of this age don't fully understand and consider to be magical. The premise is the third law of Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I won't review the game here as I'm sure a Google search will return a number of good reviews about the system.

The system is simple and flexible. It won't be to everyone's tastes, especially if you like your systems more complex, but it gets the job done and in an extraordinarily efficient manner. After a few rolls, in the demo session I ran, the players were using the system without checking the rules within minutes of play. It faded into the background allowing us to focus on the story. The fact that the GM NEVER rolls the dice alleviates some of the burden of running the game. Every action in game is rolled by the players, even those initiated by NPCs. The PC wants to attack someone, he rolls the attack. The PC wants to avoid being seen by a guard, he rolls his stealth. The NPC attacks the PC, the player rolls defense. The NPC wants to sneak by a PC, the player rolls to spot the NPC, and so on. In play, it's runs very smoothly.

The system goes something like this: whenever a PC tries to do something that needs rolling, the GM chooses a difficulty from 1 to 10. In turn, the player must roll the same or higher than a target number equal to that difficulty times 3. So, trying to climb a wall with a difficulty of 3, the PC must roll 9 or higher (3x3=9). And this goes for every thing in the game. NPCs have levels which determine how hard is to target them or how difficulty it is to evade their attacks. For instance, if a level 2 NPC attacks a PC, the player must roll 6 or higher to avoid the attack. If they player wants to attack, he must roll 6 or higher. Remember that the players always roll. Since the players can change the difficulty using a series of mechanics such as skills, equipment or by spending points from their attributes pools, they are always in control of how difficult the task is.

Making NPCs is as simple as the GM noting down: Korr Vehn, village leader, level 2. Since the NPC level determines everything mechanically pertinent about the NPC from health to difficulty numbers for and against the PCs, the GM only has to focus on the visuals, bringing the NPC to life.

The setting is the highlight of the game. The blend of medieval technology with the remnants of numenera bring a sort of surreal quality to the world. The players, and by extension the PCs, never know what they will find around the corner or over the next hill. They could find a metal dome with all sorts of odd machines inside or a cube of energy floating in the air with a person frozen inside. It provides a sense of wonder and mystery which encourages the players to explore. In the demo session, the adventure started with a typical "go there and deliver something" quest but it turned into something more as the numenera became more and more pronounced. The players are constantly reminded that they are not in a standard fantasy world. That priest tower may be stone and mortar but is surely protected by a force field or an automaton or a deadly cloud of nanites. The villagers are plagued with strange dreams that may be data being wrongly transmitted by a malfunctioning machine that the PCs must repair.

Even the creatures remind us that the Earth we know or any other fantasy setting. There are no orcs, dwarfs, dragons or elves. There are no horses. Instead people ride aneen, a long legged quadruped creature. In play, the players loved this strangeness, the blend of sci-fi with fantasy, or sci-fantasy. To sum up: it's a game well-worth playing and I'm looking forward to start my campaign soon.

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