Sunday, March 30, 2014

I'll have apocalypse "B", thank you.

Originally this blog was supposed to be about Kevin Crawford's excellent space-opera sandbox game  Stars Without Number.  (which is available as a free download  and well worth a look.  Even if you don't want to play, the random generators and tag system for locations are well worth the time of a curious GM.)  The kids rolled up characters and...that was it.  Daughter was put off by her character's one hit point and refused to play.  I tried to explain that this was an Old School game and that character death was part of the emerging story and that one hit point was just God's way of saying "Don't get into gun fights, li'l psychic" but she wouldn't have it.  So we moved on to Numenera, because it looked like it would be fun, easy to run and to play and because I didn't want to run d20.

Since then, we have played and enjoyed some Numenera.  But to tell you the truth, I kind of don't get it.

I have tried and tried to nail down the role-playing experience and the best metaphor I have come up with is story-telling as jazz.  The particular game you use is both the instrument and the style. Some games are three-chord electric blues; some games are smoove jazz with lilting pianos and clarinets, and some games are fast, hard bebop full of brass and drum solos.  The commonality is improvisation: everyone understands the structure, but no one really knows how it's going to turn out.

To punish the metaphor: as an instrument of creative play, I like the action of Numenera, but I don't like the tone.

Some people love it.  I think it may be an acquired taste.

Stars Without Number, on the other hand, has a tone and action that I deeply appreciate.  And it's post-apocalyptic sibling, Other Dust, is just as good.  In fact, I think it's better.

That's why I decided to run Other Dust for the grown-ups: I just like it better.

To appreciate the setting of Other Dust, imagine Star Trek re-drawn by George Orwell: an ultra-tech veneer of harmony over a deep, dark well of repression and dread.  This anti-Federation is called the Terran Mandate.  Imagine that the power to create this far-flung stellar empire comes from humanity's mastery of psychic powers: jump gates, nano-technology, stellar navigation, even common appliances, all powered by the mental energy of a mighty choir of psychics capable of prolonging their own lifespans over centuries and manipulating planetary systems with their minds alone.

Now, imagine that all of the psychics, all at once, go utterly and violently insane.

They rip apart the planet's infrastructure including nuclear power plants and the world-wide nanite cloud that is the setting's internet.  They call in orbital strikes to try and kill one-another, deploy the Bright Mirror Orbital Defense System to incinerate any spacecraft that try to get on or off the planet, and re-purpose the nanites meant to keep everyone clean and healthy to a program of twisted genetic engineering that creates terrifying mutants of every imaginable kind.

Two hundred years later, the seven strongest psychics are still alive, Earth has had no relief from the stars, and play begins.

If you are familiar with Numenera, you will notice several similarities right off the bat.  The Iron Wind in Numenera is the Dust in Other Dust.  Mutants are common in both settings.  There is an element of super-science mimicking magic in both settings as well; Crawford's insane psychics are called "The Crazed" and are essentially the Lich-Kings and -Queens of New Terra.  In fact, Other Dust is more like the game I thought I was getting when I backed Numenera than Numenera actually turned out to be.

After our first session playing Other Dust, which was great fun, it did occur to me that the whole thing would have been easier in Numenera's Cypher System by far. Numenera runs more smoothly, there's less book keeping, the characters that were generated would have been easily replicated in Numenera. I plan on incorporating a mechanic similar to GM intrusions into this game.  Numenera has a lot to offer, especially in terms of mechanics and ease of prep.

Other Dust, on the other hand, resonates truer to me.  The creatures are based on real-world animals mutated by the High Shine nanite system.  The world before the fall has a history that I can understand and riff from, unlike Numenera which seems to be powered by inaccessibility to the past.  The rules for technology--repairing, salvaging and discovering it--all feel more genuine and player-driven than the Cypher System of Numenera which is based on random finds of one-shot items.  Finding a flare or a backpack with an old picture and a broken radio in it seems more evocative to me than finding a sphere that can turn your tongue purple or a headband that can shoot a single laser beam before it's useless junk.

Monte Cook says that Numenera is about discovery, but it is equally about danger and daring.  Danger and daring are great fun, but the way Numenera presents them feels more like a super hero story than a survival story.  Ultimately, it's about being awesome by having awesome powers and going into dangerous, awesome places and doing awesome things to overcome awesome obstacles, collecting awesome loot, and then going back to do it over and over again because it was just so awesome.

I find that...tiresome.

Other Dust is also about being awesome.  However, it's about being awesome by being tiny and fragile and smart and brave.  It's about having just enough power to not die today, and trying to scrimp together enough to make it through tomorrow.  It's about finding favor in communities, making hard choices, scrounging and searching and fighting with a terrible will because you know that each fight could be your last.

Other Dust seems more taut, more rife with tension, more random and because of all of that, more fun for me.

Once the group is through this adventure, maybe we'll try some Numenera, just to see if the tone is as off as I thought it was at first.  I might learn to really understand Numenera's groove.

In the mean time, Other Dust is on the table.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How I stopped hating and learned to love the Red Box.

Our next gaming session was set up by Son, who contacted all of his friends and made it happen.  I was very proud of him.  He has made mention of having his own gamer group.  Fantastic!  I was looking forward to running the game since the last session went so well and I was eager to see how the Doctor and Snake Head would fare against the Golden Dawn-esque cultists in the Vortex.

I had made notes about all of the cultists on a single sheet of lined paper, reviewed the adventure, marked rules in the main Numenera book that I thought might come up or had come up and confused me last time, printed character sheets, and honed and oiled my "How to play Numenera"spiel.  I was more than ready to show these kids how it's done.

When the first friend showed up, he greeted me and Son and said, "Well, I guess we'll be playing what's in this backpack."


Then he pulled out a Big Red Box with the label "Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set."

Now, I will confess that I had a kind of brain cramp at this point.  I felt kind of like saying "NO, we are not playing THAT, we are playing NUMENERA which is AWESOME and not THAT because it is CRAP, CRAP, CRAAAAAAAP!!"

But I did not, because I am a grown up.  Besides, I expected Son to say "Actually, my dad is running a game for us which we started last week,  and you guys can join in and play.  It's called Numenera and it's awesome."

My son did not say that.  He said "Sure!  Sounds fun!"

My heart kind of sank, mostly because I knew that what was transpiring was exactly right.  Kids are supposed to play with kids.  Kids learn a lot from GM'ing games and from figuring out complex systems together.  Jack Chick 80's hysteria aside, playing D&D is not the worst thing they could be doing.

But it wasn't Numenera.

Man-oh-Man, was it Not Numenera.

The D&D Beginner's Kit (4th ed based) does Character Generation kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with each decision point giving you something to fill in on your character sheet.  It's easy, but it's not quick and with three boys trying to do it all at once, it took a loooong time.  Hours.  We had Snake Head up and running in about 20 minutes and that included some rules and setting exposition.  It was painful to listen to.  One of the boys arrived late and did his Choose Your Own Adventurer while the other boys played video games.

It seemed horribly tedious to me and I half expected them to bag the whole thing and ask me to run Numenera.  Truth be told, I kind of hoped they would.

They did not.

Rather, they made it through the funnish slog of D&D character generation, finally got to play, and had a ball.  They sounded exactly like a bunch of kids sounds playing D&D: loud, happy, funny, creative-y and completely crazy.  The were fighting a Nightmare which they finally defeated with 50' of rope, AT-AT style, which was old-school awesome.  Not a word was said about Numenera; D&D 4E was on tap and was enjoyed to the fullest.

I related a very short version of this story on Facebook, and an old friend asked if there was an adult version and when he could join in.

"Um, Hell yes.  Have you heard of Numenera?"

Sometimes it's good to be a grown up.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Doctor and Snake Head save the day!

Daughter having effectively bowed out of the Numenera game with Son, I wondered whether our campaign had any future.  Son answered that question by inviting three friends over to play an RPG, run by Yours Truly.  Two of the boys had to cancel, so only one came to play. He turned out to be a great role player, and we had a lot of fun.

For the adventure, I chose The Vortex, by Mote Cook.  (Spoiler Alert: If you plan to play in this adventure, I'm going to recount everything that happened so don't say I didn't warn you.)

This adventure is structured well, giving the GM lots of moving parts and a few hooks to get the players into the action.  The first part of the adventure introduces a disappearing structure called The Narthex that materializes and disappears around the Ninth World like a self-aware TARDIS with an agenda.  The players encounter a cult with a charismatic but loathsome leader based loosely on Alister Crowley.  I used the hooks from the adventure, and Son and Friend took the bait eagerly.

Friend's character was a Tough Nano who Bears a Sheath of Ice.  He said he liked to play "tank wizards" so I thought he made a good choice.  He made a sketch of his character, who had a weird snake thing sitting on his noggin.  It looked like the snake was trying to swallow the character's head.

Friend explained to me that the character was the snake thing, that he was some kind of psychic parasite snake, and that the human in the picture was just a host.  "Ooooohkaaay," thought I, but I quickly put aside misgivings and put on my "Yes, and" hat and said "sure."  I figured we would handle any issues that came up on the fly.

So the Doctor and Snake Head, on the way to a small town to investigate some disappearances, witnessed a group of oddly dressed weirdos doing a hand-wavy chanty ritual before disappearing into a building shaped like a football which also disappeared.  The weirdo cultists left behind a bag of groceries and a satchel with a pen (they were very excited about the pen) and a journal that predicted that the football would show up again in ten days not too far from where they were going.  They made haste to the town.

Friend and Son really enjoyed the role play with the cultists, and Friend said at one point that he "loved" what we were doing.  They both seemed to be enjoying the game.

Once the arrived at the town they visited the principle NPC;s, a headwoman and a glaive.  More fun RPing ensued.  At one point the headwoman said " got a snake on your head!"  and he was Snake Head from that point onward.

The latest disappearances were two young boys who had last been seen at a lake.  The heroes went to investigate and discovered a Mesomeme, a kind of giant crab with long tentacles that protrude from it's back.  It sets the heads of it's victims on the tentacles; the heads repeat their last words over and over as a kind of haunting cacaphony.  Quote from Friend "That is so WEIRD!"

The duo decided to recruit help from the town and formulated a plan using a desiccating detonation which evaporated water within a certain radius, doing damage to the creatures therein.  They then went to the waters' edge with the Glaive from the town, three hunters with bows and clubs, their wits and a decent plan.

They found the creature and rolled for initiative.  The Doctor threw his detonation, which I decided did double damage because the creature was aquatic.  Snake Head and the hunters then tried to draw the creature out of the muck by shooting arrows at it and generally making it's life hard.  I was also playing a character named Jang, a Tough Glaive who Fights with Panache.  I decided to play a character to model for the boys how some of the rules work, especially Effort.  Jang attacked with his spear, used effort and rolled a 17 for extra damage.  I described the hit as Jang's spear going into the creature's eye.  Lots of great "Eww's" from the peanut gallery.

We went around a few more rounds.  The mesomeme missed it's attacks because of effort put into dodging it's attacks.  A GM intrusion had Snake Head's club bounce off the back of the creature and go flying into the lake.  The hunters and the Glaive together made a single level 6 creature, which was a good match to the Mesomeme.  At one point the Doctor attacked with his dagger and brought it down to one health.  Then it was Jang' turn.  I asked the boys what they would rater see happen: Jang do the killing blow or the Glaive.  They thought the Glaive had better do it so the town could feel safe and proud, which I thought was cool and insightful.  The Glaive smashed the creature's life out with a maul, and that was that.

The Doctor found a gas bomb in the mouth of a crow-goblin whose head was mounted on the back of the Mesomeme.  (I used a GMI to have it say "Follow the Yellow Robes!" meaning the cult members before it was put to rest.)  The party took the mesomeme meat (which they called "crab meat") back to the grateful town.  The townsfolk were grateful and told them that they would always be welcome at that place.

We stopped there.  It really could not have gone much better.  Numenera is easy to improvise with so far; the combat was fun and fluid and the role playing was facilitated by the excellent clues and prompts given in the adventure.

A final note: I use glass beads to represent XP.  Having a thing in front of me reminds me to use GMI's, which seems to be a problem for new Numenera GM's.  (Several years of Savage Worlds probably doesn't hurt either.)  XP are the players' currency of narrative control, so Game Master Intrusions are important just so that the players can advance or use their XP in other cool ways.

Friday, March 7, 2014

First Adventure:  Teen Wolf Angst in the Ninth World

For the kids' first Numenera adventure I decided to run the Beale of Boregal, the first of several adventures in the Numenera book.

Oh.  Oh my.

For a first adventure, I found the BoB confusing.  It's lay-out, the hooks, the NPC's, all left me with a "Hunh?" feeling that did not give me great confidence in my ability to run it well.  However, Numenera is different enough from other games in both setting and mechanics that I did not feel comfortable simply improvising or adapting an adventure from another source.

Everything in the BoB seems to be playing at the same volume.  The premise is that the characters are on a pilgrimage, which is described in a great deal of detail that isn't really important to the adventure or to the character's understanding of the world.  Those details became a distracting static as I was attempting to prepare to run the adventure. I failed to look at it critically enough to cut out a lot of what amounts to fat and/or fluff.  The pilgrimage is essentially a set piece; the player characters could have the same play experience if they had the first encounter while sitting on a stump in a meadow or drinking in a tavern.

The PC's are expected to be invested in the pilgrimage at the beginning of the adventure and then to all but abandon it when the hook appears. To facilitate their investment, there are a list of possible motives for the players to be on the pilgrimage.  I failed communicate with the players about their investment in the pilgrimage and to predict how that investment might distract them from the hook.

 The kids had rolled their connections to the world and their inter-party connections defaulted to one-another; it looked like their grounding in the Ninth World was a done deal and that they would be playing foils to one-another.  Daughter's connection is that Son's character, the Doctor, can talk her down from her lycanthropic transformation; Son's connection is that machines won't "talk" to him when Daughter is near.  We worked out ahead of time that he would be interested in helping her in her goal to be rid of (or at least control) her transformations; her interference with machines was a clue that pointed them towards what kind of affliction she actually was experiencing. They both seemed satisfied that they would be aiding one-another and helping each-other towards their goals as characters.  However, their attitudes towards the pilgrimage turned out to be a complicating manifestation of their attitudes towards the campaign.

As we unfolded the initial narration, Daughter revealed that for the evening she planned to play not a Learned Jack who Howls at the Moon but a Surly Teen who Eschews Role Playing Hooks.  In the adventure, a young girl and her brother approach the adventurers and ask for aid.  Daughter was not having it.  She was on a pilgrimage, she said, and intended to continue on it until she found whatever she was looking for, which was plainly not an adventure with the Doctor.  The Doctor decided to help the girl by taking her to the nearest town which boasted colored springs of healing water.

This threw me. I did not want to split the party and I certainly did not want to run an adventure simultaneously for two different players with two different agendas traveling in opposite directions.  However, I had been schooling Daughter on the merits of "Yes, but.." GM'ing, so I only had on choice: to press on.

To buy time, I asked Son what he wanted to do.  He lunged at the plot hook and took off with the girl to find help for her mental disturbance.  I described next segment of the written adventure, facilitated a bit of role-playing with various townsfolk, and came back to Daughter.

Since neither of us had read the Howls at the Moon focus very carefully, I went along when she decided to leave the Wandering Way to protect the people on the path from her transformed state.  Had either of us read the focus carefully, we would have known that she should have been easily able to predict her transformation.  Without that knowledge, I was flying blind.  Just so she'd have something to do, I sent some bandits her way, and triggered her transformation.  Rather than digging into the rules aspect of the transformation, she acted kind of bored and annoyed by them.  She easily ripped one of the bandits to pieces, and was compelled by her focus to kill all of them.  I don't think that set well with her either.

There, we stopped for the evening.

Later, she confided in me that she really did not want to game with her brother.  They have a tendency to bicker, and it often ruins the game for them and for anyone else who sits in.  She told me that some of her friends wanted me to run a game for them, without Son.  My issues with the adventure were magnified by her decision to passive-aggressively sabotage it.

Son was also fine with Daughter having a separate gaming group.  Maybe they will want to play with one-another later, as they see each other having fun with the game. In the mean time, I learned that a subversive player is not necessarily messing with you just to do so; sometimes, there is pain behind the pain that needs to be drawn out before successful play can continue.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Character creation was a breeze for both kids in Numenera.  My daughter is a bit more original in her concept: a scholar who was a member of a cabal of numenera researchers who became a werewolf as a result of some kind of vile experiment.  Now she is laying low and trying to find a way to stop becoming a bloodthirsty beast.  So she is a Learned Jack who Howls at the Moon.

My son wanted to be the Doctor.  As in "Doctor Who" the Doctor.  I explained to him that the Doctor is a kind of super hero, and we needed to hone in on whatever aspect of the Doctor he wanted to play.  After some discussion of which foci best emulated a sonic screwdriver, we came up with a Clever Jack who Talks to Machines.

The cyphers and oddities they rolled up seemed interesting.  Son got an egg that negates smell in a small radius and a desiccating detonation.  I remember detonations fondly from Arcana Evolved, and was eager to see what he would do with it.

The kids made their characters at two different times.  Each time was a joy: simple, interesting and not too technical.  I also made up a character to play alongside theirs to demonstrate how to use effort and other rules.  His name is Jang; he's a traveling acrobat and wrestler: a Tough Glaive who Fights with Panache.

A quote from my daughter: "I can make Indiana Jones as a Werewolf?  This game is Awesome!!"

Monday, March 3, 2014

Welcome to Dungeons and Travellers.  This blog is about my experiences with Numenera, specifically as it relates to gaming with my children, who are young teens.  The three of us are all conversant in Savage Worlds, so you can expect some comparisons.

In addition, I will be exploring the similarities and differences between Numenera and Other Dust, Kevin Crawford's excellent old-school post-apocalyptic RPG.  These games manifest many very similar ideas in very different ways.

I also like to go on about things like what hit points mean, but I'll keep those short.

Thanks for visiting!  Come back to visit and I think you'll enjoy what you find here.