Numenera: The Beale of Boregal

I finally got to play some Numenera. Kim had played an intro module at BigBadCon last October and really enjoyed it, so it wasn’t too hard to talk her into GMing a few sessions for us. She decided to run The Beale of Boregal, the first module from the core book, mixed up a little bit to both more fit her personal style and to be a jumping-off point for a longer arc.

My character is In Gwen Said (thanks, random name generator!), a Graceful Jack who Explores Dark Places. Ousted from the Explorers Guild by a rival and ostracized, Gwen is on the Wandering Walk – a mystical pilgrimage route through the Ninth World with no clear beginning or ending – as a sort of walkabout. Gwen links up with fellow-travellers: Kal, a swift jack trying to escape the consequences of the tragic accident that gave him a halo of fire; Vehm, a swift nano who fuses flesh and steel, who found it more convenient to leave town after he killed a high-profile criminal; Millord, the rugged glaive who howls at the moon and is on a quest to restore his family’s fortune; and Meck, the mystical nano who controls beasts and as yet has no backstory despite the best efforts of the character creation system.

The story starts off on the Wandering Walk with the standard meet-and-greet. Gwen and Kal are friends who did some artifact-hunting together in the past; all the other characters turn out, conveniently, to know each other in some way, so that helps. With pleasantries disposed of, the group sights a scutimorph on the horizon, with riders! On the off chance you aren’t familiar with scutimorphs, they are 6 foot high, 12 foot long millipede-like creatures that, as far as anyone knows, are untamable. So that’s kind of odd. The riders turn out to be a teenage boy and his badly wounded younger sister who, it seems, is telepathic or at least empathic. It develops that the two are fleeing a raid on their village, and looking for aid and healing. We don’t have the healing the girl needs, so we arrange for an escort to the spa town down the road while we trudge off to see what we can do for their village.

Said village is in the False Woods, so named (as quickly becomes apparent) because what looks like an orchard from a distance is actually a bunch of identical tubes, all hovering about 2′ off the ground, arrayed in neat rows and columns and supporting a net of some kind. And also, with scutimoprhs wrapped around them. As the villagers are trying to homestead on top of numenera they don’t understand, weird stuff has been happening: villagers are having bad dreams, animals in the vicinity are becoming unusually erratic and/or homicidal, stuff life that. After the nanos in the party spend a little time deciphering the numenera, to everyone’s general amusement, we follow the signs off towards the village of Embered Peaks which we suspect to be the source of the psychic disruption.

On the way we are ambushed by some Stratherian War Moths (because, if I’m a warped high-level nano wanting to bioengineer some killing machines, the first thing that occurs to me is to start with a moth). These would have been nastier if Kal had not remembered he had a cypher that could produce a large Wall of Cold, turning a highly dangerous encounter into a manageable one. Gwen shows off some archery skills, along with fast defensive maneuvering which leaves the moths blasting their heat rays at shadows.

On arrival at Embered Peaks, we find the small village in chaos. People are running around in madness. Houses are on fire. Millord detects a survivor in one burning building, and Gwen runs in along with Kal to try to effect rescue. Things start to go wrong when Kal decides throwing a small child out a second story window to safety is probably fine, and ends with Kal clinging to the other survivor and a Reality Spike mounted to nothing 20 feet off the ground while the house collapses around him and Gwen dances back out the front door.

Undeterred, at the heart of town we find a strange cult fiddling while things burn. Embered Peak’s claim to tourist fame is an oracle that supposedly lets people talk with the dead if they are in possession of the corpse, but in a way that a) only allows them to ask one question, and b) the answers are always lies. Gwen thinks this sounds not particularly productive, but whatever. It turns out to be trickier than you might think to formulate a couple of questions to ask that might ascertain the truth of the situation. This turns out to be important, as the numenera that powers this feat (and as a byproduct seems to be driving people in the vicinity to madness) is what looks like a person who has been hooked via tubes and wires to a giant artifact of some kind. The person has probably been there for a very, very long time. It’s really unclear to the party whether the person wants to be disconnected, put out of his misery, or what exactly and whether any of it would put an end to the ongoing situation. The local cultists are (perhaps unsurprisingly) not that helpful. After some back and forth in which Kal is revealed to have a complicated ethical framework, we try disconnecting. This gets awkward when the artifact itself seems reluctant to let its captive/host/symbiote go, and the party must fend off encroaching cables and tubes trying to capture them while disconnecting the captive. Eventually the captive is released! He seems to be a powerful fusion of flesh and numenera, so that’s a little scary, but he also seems grateful and non-homicidal! So that was probably the right answer. Problem solved. What’s next?

I’m a big fan of Monte Cook’s work – my favorite d20-style RPG by far was Arcana Unearthed/Evolved – so I came into Numenera with some confidence, even though the “billion years in the future” and “technology or magic – you decide!” hook didn’t immediately grab me. In the end, the game easily exceeded expectations and I enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed any RPG I’ve ever played. The character creation process is genius (and easy), the system of GM intrusions is fantastic, and the rest of the system is very lightweight and extremely efficient. The game world of Numenera is rich and engaging. At a high level it has a similar aesthetic to Ashen Stars: take something familiar (the fantasy d20 tradition), and then “reboot” it by introducing a few quirky, disruptive elements to make it novel. Numenera has gone a lot farther down this path than Ashen Stars did, though. It has (like Arcana Evolved before it) jettisoned all the elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, and other baggage and completely replaced it with an entirely new, thoroughly-developed world designed both as a compelling fictional setting and to support the peculiar storytelling requirements of the  roleplaying genre. The amount of creative effort that has gone into the setting is impressive: from all the strange creatures and races to the cyphers, oddities, and artifacts, there is a ton of depth here and it steadfastly refuses to fall back on cliches. There is a lot to like and I hope to be playing it for quite a while. I highly recommend it.

Origins Report – RPGs

Although Kim and I are primarily board gamers, over the past few years the focus of Origins has slowly been shifting to RPGs for us. The good reasons are that we’ve found a group (Amorphous Blob) that generally runs events that we really enjoy and because as we’ve become more experienced we’re enjoying the RPGs more. The unfortunate reason is that the situation with board games (wargames in particular) has been slipping a bit.

This year I had signed up for a record for me of 14 hours of RPGs: two D&D events, one Arcana Unearthed, and one Paranoia. Due to my illness, I was only able to make it to one of the two D&D games and the AU, and was really only able to fully participate in the AU.

P6300034The AU game was the personal highlight of my shortened con, though, as it was being run by Monte Cook, the designer. The adventure he ran was a heavily modified version of The Severed Oath, a module available on his web site. The theme remained similar, and it used the same characters, although the details were altered enough to make it unrecognizable. I played the Mojh Mage Blade Karzagedaren. Kim played the Giant Champion of Life Tor-Gerren.

I had a little trouble working with the Karzagedaren character – he was supposed to be a strong-willed, impatient warrior – but I found it hard to find his zen. I, like others I’ve talked too, have been drawn to the Mage Blade class because it’s the sort of spell-slinging warrior you always wanted but just flat-out can’t do in D&D. But I actually wonder if it’s one of the weaker classes in AU from a roleplaying perspective. Compared to the wonderfully thematic Akashic, Greenbond, Oathsworn, Unfettered, and Champion (just to pick a few) with their easy roleplaying hooks, the Mage Blade is a little generic.

Kim had better luck with her Giant character – Tor-Gerren was a noble sort and had some good roleplaying tie-ins in the adventure, so she was able to really get into the character. It helped that she was devastating in combat, as she had enough Giant racial levels to become Large, which means a longer reach and bigger, more damaging weapons. Of course, when it came to time to sneak around a bit, that’s a bit hard to do when you’re 12 feet tall and wearing Full Plate. And the 20 foot movement was kind of a bummer.

I had a good time with this, and it was a pleasure to meet with Monte Cook (and get him to sign our Arcana Evolved book!). He also introduced us to Tact-Tiles, which are a great alternative to the traditional battle mat. He has his own writeup of Origins on his website, which is a good read.

My other event was a D&D adventure from Amorphous Blob, which was more in the roleplaying/humor vein. A Wizard hires the party (which is all 12th level – I was a Ranger 8/Arcane Archer 4) to rid him of a pesky dragon that has taken up residence in the mountain next door. However, the more the party delves into the problem, the more things are not as they seem. For one, there are large numbers of demons wandering around for some reason. It turns out that this is more in the way of a suburban squabble over a fence than anything else, and the Wizard (who might be a weasel) may have summoned a high-level Demon Prince from the Abyss to kill the Dragon, but there was a miscalculation of size which left the huge demon bound and trapped in a tiny room from which he could not escape, but the gate to the abyss was jammed open, letting smaller demons through. The party had to sort out this mess, eventually convincing the Dragon and Wizard to make up and combine their might to seal the gate and unsummon the Demon.

This was an amusing and very entertaining adventure, and I had the opportunity to play with some very good roleplayers who really got into it. I think there was all of about 1 combat sequence which lasted only a few minutes (it was amusing too … we had to take down two Demons, so all the spellcasters in the party just took a couple rounds to pour every enhancement spell in their arsenal into our Dwarven Warrior, who then single-handedly ran screaming towards them and took them out with a few quick axe blows).

I had to bail on the Paranoia game unfortunately, but Kim played and had a very good time, so she’ll be running a session or two for our local buddies sometime soon.

I didn’t buy any new RPG books at Origins, as GenCon is where most of the new RPGs get debuted it seems, but I did pick up a set of Tact-Tiles, and I added to my collection of Iron Wind Metal’s Arcana Unearthed figures a few minis appropriate for my current game. Iron Heroes, the next “Variant Player’s Handbook” from Malhavoc (Monte Cook’s label) which will be released later this month, looks extremely promising and might be something to move on to in a year or two. But for the moment, between Arcana Unearthed, Paranoia, and D&D, I’m pretty much set.

Arcana Unearthed – preparing for the Plague of Dreams

(2014 note: this piece originally had a ton of links to both the other games I talk about and design diaries and such on Monte Cook’s site. I was surprised to find that after 9 years, I could not find a single live link – not just product pages for all the moribund RPGs which went by the wayside or whose licenses expired or companies went bust, but for the Arcana Evolved and Monte Cook content also. I’ve updated links where I could and removed the rest. You can find the games on rpggeek.com if you like. A few dead links are still here where required to maintain the integrity of the piece. And by the way, Arcana Evolved is still awesome).

I have been promising (sort of) more roleplaying content for a while, but it has not been forthcoming despite my monthly-ish ongoing D&D game.

This is due in significant part to my rising levels of frustration with D&D. This should be held distinct from my feelings for d20/OGL, which is not a bad system inherently. Sure, it’s overcomplicated – attacks of opportunity, for example, are needlessly opaque and a common rules complaint. Why do you think they need a D&D For Dummies book? But the real problem with D&D is not the d20 core, but the world that the class, skills, and spells of D&D describe, which is not always very coherent. At the risk of revealing the ending of this particular story, rather than subject you to my own rantings I’ll refer you to a couple of Monte Cook’s columns that clearly encapsulate a few of my issues. So while I enjoy the D&D off and on, I didn’t want to just write posts that were going to be me ranting about the broken rule/feat/item/prestige class du jour, or how the oddities of D&D often seems to inhibit the roleplaying experience.

So I went looking for an alternative to D&D. I’ll need to run it, so given my inexperience as a GM, there was a hard requirement that it had to have a good off-the-shelf introductory adventure. And being d20/OGL helped a lot. The candidates were …

Star Wars d20: This is a much better system than D&D, but the feel of the game is more Extended Universe Star Wars than George Lucas Star Wars, which – regardless of what you think of the prequels – is not good. Despite the appeal of the theme, my feeling is that the storytelling options here are somewhat constrained and the cheesiness which is such an endearing part of the genre might grow old in an ongoing RPG. I would be more than happy to play in an occasional one-off Star Wars game, but can’t get excited about putting the effort required into running it, especially given the serious dearth of published adventures. Next!

Babylon 5 d20 is an interesting and promising universe, and the system is well-supported by Mongoose with some good sourcebooks (along with a couple very poor ones) and a few reasonable pre-made adventures. But the system has a whiff of inadequate playtesting and lack of concern for game balance, and mini-maxer fodder is one of the things I’m trying to avoid here. Next!

Lord of the Rings RPG (Decipher) is very thematic and has a lot of really good stuff, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and has significant problem elements and rules holes, and I just don’t know that I’m up for filling in all the gaps at this time. I also don’t know that I want to compete with Tolkien, and the downloadable adventures on the Decipher website are almost indescribably lame. It also appears to be dead. Next!

Fireborn looks very, very cool. But even though it’s significantly simpler in the end than d20, it’s also absolutely nothing like d20 and has higher startup costs in terms of learning, and so is a tough sell. Plus, the published “intro” adventure has some issues, and of course there are persistent questions as to whether Fantasy Flight actually knows how to develop a game of any kind. Very high on my list to try, but not this time. Next!

Paranoia XP looks like a lot of fun, it’s vaguely d20, and knowing the rules is treason for the players anyway. But it’s the sort of game you run as a one-off. There are a couple of short adventures in the Crash Priority book that look great and I’d like to run them sometime, but I was looking for something with a bit more meat. Paranoia is also a demanding (if particularly entertaining) game for the GM.

So … we come to Arcana Unearthed (or Arcana Evolved; they’re the same game).

Rather than tell you why AU is so appealing to me, I’m going to just suggest you read Monte Cook’s design diaries (start at the bottom and work your way up), which are a good read. Much of what I could say would simply duplicate what he’s already said more clearly. In my opinion, AU is a significant improvement in terms of game design over D&D in virtually every way. Crucially, though, AU is, at its core, D&D done right. So if you know how to play D&D, and are familiar with the concepts, moving to AU is almost (almost) painless – it’s just that the abusive feats and spells have been eliminated, many elements have been brought into better balance, things have been streamlined, and characters have been given more, and more interesting, options. Spellcasters in particular have vastly more interesting options than in core D&D, even the lesser spellcasters. The setting is richer, more interesting, and makes sense. D&D leans heavily towards combat (if I wanted to play a tactical war game, I have better options), and while AU certainly retains those roots, it was also designed with a great deal of thought towards encouraging interesting roleplaying. And the game clearly was not burdened by the needs of a somewhat reactionary fan base.

Now, AU is not perfect. Being OGL it is still a bit over-complicated, and you need to get familiar with the setting. There is still the issue with balance amongst the various skills; there is too much of a range, from the broad and very useful Diplomacy and Sneak to the highly specialized and rarely-useful things like Use Rope and Innuendo – they all cost the same, so where do you think the players are going to invest their relatively small number of skill points 99% of the time? But if you’re frustrated by the imbalances, inflexibility, and strange worldview of D&D, it would behoove you to check out AU.

So, with the longest intro ever out of the way, we can now get down to preparing for the actual adventure.

Plague of Dreams is an introductory adventure for AU, published by Fiery Dragon. It serves a couple of purposes. Firstly, it’s an introduction to the world and history of AU, as the PCs interact with all the AU races in Gahanis, a typical small town, and explore some ruins with a connection to the major event in the recent history of the AU world (the war between the Giants and Dramojh). Secondly, it’s a low-power and low-complexity adventure that can serve as an intro to roleplaying in general, with opportunities for some combat and roleplaying. Normally I wouldn’t start PCs off at 1st level, as I think the options are too limited, but in this case it works. The town of Gahanis is a small one, so there are no 8th level Warmain Sheriffs or retired 10th level Unfettered to overshadow (or serve as a crutch, or raise awkward questions) for the PCs. And Gahanis is well spec’d out by the book, so the characters are pretty free to go “off the grid” and explore, although the main mission is fairly straightforward and as the GM it’s hard to imagine even the most ornery PCs going too badly astray (although one thing I do know, as a GM, never underestimate the ability of your players to wander off in some bizarre and unexpected direction if you give them a chance. Things often seem quite different from the other side of the screen).

The first thing I did in preparing the adventure was to sit down and, with Kim’s help, come up with pre-generated characters along with some simple backgrounds. In my experience, generating characters is a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Players like to generate their own PCs; but they don’t know what skills will be useful, what will be interesting story-wise, or nearly as much about the world as the GM does. In the past, I’ve always wanted to come up with some cool background for my PC as a player, but then have run into the wall of not knowing enough about the world or the mission to do anything sensible. When combined with the fact that most of our players had last done pen and pencil roleplaying sometime between never and high school, and at any rate I wasn’t going to ask them to spring for a $50 sourcebook (or $24 for a PDF), I figured it was best to take control of the situation and do it myself. In retrospect, I wish I had developed these a little more, but on balance I was reasonably happy.

Secondly, I dug up some Avery inkjet-printable perforated index cards and made up an encounter template. Having adversary stats handy is a huge advantage in running combats, which have to be run briskly or the game bogs down. Entering the stats into the template also had the side benefit of giving me a chance to consider each opponent in turn, getting familiar with their abilities and thinking a bit about their tactics. Plague of Dreams has a couple cool encounters, and my experience was it’s a very good idea to prep these thoroughly. You can always read off the descriptions of an area from the book if you forget; but if you’re inexperienced like me, the combats can really bog the game down if you aren’t prepared.

Thirdly, rather than tackle the whole module, I realized that we were only going to be able to play the first half in one weeknight. The first half is fairly well self-contained, and just the right length for a weeknight session, so this actually worked out all right. I just read it over several times, and made some overall notes of locations I thought it was highly likely the players would visit (the library to do some research, the apothecary, etc). I focussed on the one most important NPC and tried to work out how I would play him. There is one major location with an interesting architectural layout that I wanted to make sure I had a clear image of in my mind. I then made photocopies of all the important illustrations in the book so I could give them out as visual aids. The goal, of course, was not to memorize everything – there is a lot there – but to be ready to look things up in case the players visited them.

Lastly, I came up with an intro section about how the players came together. The old “you all randomly meet in a tavern …” thing is a staple, but it’s lame and gets the module off on the wrong foot; I have found that getting the party together in a sensible way with some basic but rational motivations and reasons for being there gives excellent bang for the roleplaying buck. As you can see from the background snippets, I knew why everyone was in the town of Gahanis, so I just figured out exactly where they were staying and what had happened at the time they were contacted by their new prospective employer.

That’s it. It was a bit of work, but really not too bad, less than I expected, and a lot less than if I had tried to roll my own (and the adventure is better that what I could have done to boot). Next time, we’ll see how the first half actually played out.