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.

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