Category: The Armchair Adventurers
News, views and miscellaneous guff from the club.
Stormbringer – In discussion with Ken St Andre
“The task of a game like Stormbringer is to transcribe the essence of someone’s imagination into numerical and descriptive form so that it can be easily manipulated in the form of rules. The task of the gamers is to take those numbers and flesh them out in their own imaginations, to recreate the storytelling experience in their own minds while playing.”
— Ken St. Andre, Heroic Worlds (1991)
I promised in the podcast (Stormbringer Episode 5 (Part 1)) that I would provide the transcript of the Twinterview (as no-one is calling them) that we had with Ken St Andre that was used in the ‘Potted History Section’ of the episode. It was a very enlightening exchange, where we couldn’t help gushing towards this legendary figure in the world of gaming. He showed great humility in the face of our giddy excitement.
The conversation was brokered by @dailydwarf (DD) who invited Blythy (JB) and myself (Dirk) to join in with The Trollfather himself … Ken St Andre (KsA).
DD: My 13 year old self just exploded. I’ll start with the obvious question – did you have any contact with Michael Moorcock prior to starting work on your game, or during development?
KsA: No. I’ve never met Michael or even talked to him or corresponded with him. I just liked his sword and sorcery books, especially Elric.
Dirk: I really admire your work, because your games always remind everyone that games are meant to be fun, not difficult, which had a positive influence on how we played. What came first? Chaosium’s licence or were you playing in the Young Kingdoms in your own games?
KsA: Back about 1974 I went to graduate school at the University of Arizona, and roomed with a guy who was Diplomacy master; he ran games for other players. Fantasy variants of Diplomacy. A year later when I got back home I grew interested in running fantasy diplomacy variant games of my own. One of the first that I created was a Young Kingdoms variant. It may be on file in a diplomacy bank somewhere, I don’t have it any more.
Then Chaosium got the license to do a game based on Elric. I heard about that and wrote to Greg Stafford with my proposition for how the game should be done. Chaosium accepted me, and I started work on the game by rereading all the Elric stories I had–there were only 2 slim volumes back then–Stormbringer and The Stealer of Souls.
I loved the Elric stories almost as much as Howard’s Conan stories. Still do. I identify with Elric much more than with Conan.
JB: How hard was it to collaborate designing the game? How did the collaboration work?
KsA: Originally I wrote the complete game by myself with Steve Perrin assigned to be my editor. In the process of finishing the document, Steve added significant contributions dealing with religious alignment and the information about various gods of the Young Kingdoms. I thought his contributions were enough to warrant listing him as a co-author instead of just an editor, so that’s what we did.
Dirk: Were Chaosium precious about the BRP mechanics being part of the game? You do an excellent job of making Moorcock’s vision work as a game. What aspect of the Young Kingdoms presented the most challenges for the games design?
KsA: Thank you for the compliment.
I’m not sure what you mean about “precious” for Chaosium. They pretty much insisted that the basic game mechanics come from BRP, but let me go ahead and modify it into a true D100 system instead of D20.
You know that in the early Elric stories Moorcock gave only the vaguest description of how magic worked. It looked to me like everything he did involved some kind of summoning of external, supernatural forces, and so I decided to go with magic based on summoning and subduing demons and elementals. That was, I think, the trickiest part of the game design.
I was kind of proud of the whole combat/skills system. As for sorcerers, they are meant to be insanely powerful and deadly–every single one that I saw in MM’s stories fit that pattern. Any wizard who was incompetent would have killed himself early.
DD: Was there anything you wanted to include in Stormbringer but didn’t, for reasons of brevity / time?
I actually wanted to make the game more complex than they allowed me to. Because of the strong implications of Chaos in the Moorcock books, I wanted to base things on the number 8. So the copper coin was the low currency, the silver coin was worth 8 times as much as copper, and gold was worth 64 times as much as silver. That isn’t actually very far from the ratios of their values on Earth. The Melnibonean Wheel would have been worth 500 times as much as gold coin. Too complicated said Charlie Krank and the Chaosium editors. Multiples of 10 said they. Grrr said I, but they were the publishers. Aside from that, I pretty much got my way with what went into the rules.
JB: Have you ever played Elric?
KsA: Have I ever played their successor (to Stormbringer) game? No. Don’t know anyone who has, actually. Really only played Stormbringer half a dozen times or so back when it was a new release and I would demo it at cons. 95% of my roleplaying is just Tunnels and Trolls for the last decade or so.
JB: I meant did you ever play Elric as a player in stormbringer? We never have out of some strange sense of reverence.
KsA: No, I never played Elric himself in any game I ran or was part of. That would take a lot of hubris.
DD: I agree about not playing characters from the stories. It felt redundant; those stories had already been told, and the Young Kingdoms was such a rich backdrop I was eager to tell new stories. (Moorcock’s characters might be referenced as “off-screen” NPCs, but that was it.)
KsA: We feel the same way about playing actual characters from the books. And that is why there are no stats given for Elric, Moonglum, Rackhir or any of the others.
DD: The thing I really liked about Stormbringer was that, because I’d read the Moorcock stories, I had a “way in” to understanding and developing the backdrop, crucial to making games exciting and fun. This was in contrast to how I felt about Glorantha at the time, which just seemed overwhelming in its level of detail.
KsA: With an extensive fictional background for a rpg, the game should feel like it has more depth than just some made-up frpg off the shelf. I’m sure that’s why Forgotten Realms was developed for That Other Game; also why so many licensed products from fiction have appeared over the years. Middle Earth, Conan, Elfquest, etc.
JB: Thanks for answering our questions and for your huge contribution to games we love.
KsA: I’m happy to help, guys.
THE END OF TIME
I also contacted Steve Perrin for his memories of the creative process for Stormbringer, he added the following:
I was attached as a sort of developer early on in the process. I started the process as a freelancer/contractor, but by the time we were done I was a full-time Chaosium employee.
What we had initially was Ken’s description of the Young Kingdoms and Melnibone and notes on how demons and elementals would work.
I okayed the idea of randomly determined armor and made sure that Ken didn’t take us on a journey too far away from BRP (which had not been written yet). He chose the idea that all the magic was elementals or demons.
I also invented the Virtuous weapons and armor, as some kind of counterbalance to the Chaotic powers of demon weapons.
– Steve Perrin
I’ve been curious about the movement away from Stormbringer and towards the rebranded rehash that was Elric!. There was also an interesting shift away from the concept of an ‘Eternal Champion’ series of RPGs in the mid-80s (Hawkmoon and the promise of Corum) back towards more Elric related material. On the internet there have been reports of a public dispute between Moorcock and Choasium towards the end of their relationship with each other, although this has been mainly expressed as opinion rather than based in facts.
I contacted Rick Meints, President at Choasium, to help piece together these gaps. He wasn’t around when the decisions about Stormbringer were being made, but he offered to help clarify some of the missing pieces in the story. He confirmed that Moorcock didn’t participate in the creation of the Stormbringer material, nor did he even review/ approve most of it, although review copies were sent via his agent. Moorcock couldn’t have been too unhappy along the way because he not only renewed the licence with Chaosium twice, but he also extended the range of material they were allowed to publish. That said, towards the end of the licence they did have a disagreement and the reason for this depends upon who you ask, “Chaosium folks and Michael Moorcock tell very different stories.”
It seems that one of the problems was dealing with intermediaries who were not great at passing things on to Moorcock. The extra filter caused a breakdown in communications. Chaosuim has been in contact with Moorcock’s agent to check the status of the licence and to ensure that outstanding royalties have been settled.
I’ve also written to Moorcock to get his side of the story, I’ve not heard anything back yet, I’ll share it here if I do.
The intellectual property rights for the worlds and characters are with Moorcock. The RPG material copyright is owned by Chaosuim. It would require both to agree in order to kick start a reprint. There’s no sign of that happening at the moment.
If I draw an octagon on the floor. Incant some words. Perhaps, with Arioch’s aid, we’ll make it happen.
Thanks to Ken, Steve and Rick for their help and interesting contributions.
Dirk the Dice
In other news: Thanks to the support of our Patreons, we have hit the first goal to produce a PDF fanzine later in the year. The podcasts are free, but the Patreon will help us to seek out interesting stuff to cover and support additional projects like the fanzine. If you’d like to participate and chuck some coins in the beret, you’ll find it here: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=1004643&ty=h
Putting the FAN back into Fantasy RPG
Following an emergency meeting at Dirk Towers, the time has come … to create a The GROGNARD files fanzine.
Last week, I ran on of those infernal twitter polls in a fit of beer fuelled excitement in a bid to understand if there was interest out there. 41 people voted to say that they would read a fanzine … so we’ve agreed to do one as a PDF and as a hard copy (if we can generate enough funds to support it).
To help to create something interesting and collectable we have launched a Patreon campaign. If you want to throw some pennies in the hat to support our endeavour, then we’ll be very grateful.
We are offering various goals, that you’ll see on the link, the first is a PDF ‘zine, but what we’d really want to do is to produce a real ‘zine with ink, paper and staples. It will have a flavour of the old school ‘zines, even their distinctive smell.
If you have been following my twitter feed on @theGROGNARDfile over the past few days you will have seen that I have taken delivery of a bundle of IMAGINE magazines.
TSR UK published IMAGINE magazine from 1983 – 1985 with Don Turnbull at the helm and Paul Cockburn as the assistant editor.
I used to subscribe to it back in the day, despite it’s coverage of AD&D, a game that I didn’t Games Master and only played occasionally. It was an interesting companion piece to White Dwarf as it struck a very different tone to the Games Workshop magazine. Dare I say it, but on reflection, the resources it provided were of a superior quality. PELINORE, its collectable game world, was notable for it’s richness and wonderful maps that could spark a hundred scenarios without really trying.
It lacked the general consistency of White Dwarf, for every Pelinore supplement there was a weak and confusing scenario or waffely article about the minutiae of nothing in particular. In the podcast I have described White Dwarf as a kind of analogue social media – connecting our experience of role-playing with the wider community. White Dwarf did this tacitly through its small ads and letters page, Imagine on the other hand, was more explicit in its support of the fan culture. In the back pages there was a regular ‘zine section and in later issues a series of articles entitled FANSCENE which was an attempt to reach out and encourage gamers to become more active participants in the hobby.
In the mid-80s, there was something of a boom in the world of RPG ‘zines. Many of the second generation RPGers had gone to college, so applied all of their new found freedom to knocking out these little magazines.
I lost all of my fanzine collection in The Great Clear-out of ’92 when it contributed to landfill. They’re building on it now. Under the foundation of those closely-packed semi-detached houses, there will be the remnants of DRAGONLORDS, LANKHMAR STAR DAILY, DAGON, and IMAZINE. Unlike other artefacts from RPG’s past, it’s extremely difficult to recover those lost ‘zines as they rarely appear for sale on the internet. Not surprising, given the extremely low print runs.
All that remains is the distant memory of their content, which was irreverent, packed with ‘in’ jokes and references, quirky scenarios and pitch-battles between readers who were arguing over the latest controversial issue affecting the world of gaming. I enjoyed that sense of a conversation going on, even if I didn’t get all the references.
I have ‘zine’s in my blood. At the time, I was active on the PBM scene and had a ‘zine newsletter of my own ‘THE NATIONAL KOBOLD’ (my life in PBMs will be covered in future Podcasts). I was also contributing to ‘zine’s too, notably DRUNE KROLL where I began a BROOKSIDE RPG PBM (no takers, pity because my Damon Grant whodunnit scenario was brilliant).
In the early ’90s I created an anthology of Science Fiction stories in a collection titled THE PSEUDO-NYMPH, notable for it’s wonderful illustrations. In the mid-to-late 90’s Blythy and I edited PROP, a small press, literary magazine for 10 issues (really!).
We are both excited at the prospect of producing a ‘zine because it will allow us to explore avenues that are impossible in the podcast. We plan to include some of the usual features, but with additional ideas, that we’ll preview here over the coming months.
You can have your very own cut out and keep ridiculous shrine to Caroline Munro. Chuck a few coins in the beret and make it real.
A glitch you cannot scratch …
An introduction to playing table top games online and a call for tips.
This weekend was the first ever Saturday Morning Grog Club. These are occasional online games that I’ll be running to help support the Podcast. They’re intended to help us refresh our memories about how the games work in play. This weekend was the turn STORMBRINGER, ready for the podcast due later in February, which I last played 33 years ago.
It also included my first ever meeting with @dailydwarf … I virtually know him now.
I’ll be reviving old school games online at irregular intervals. Look out for a ‘call for players’ on this site over the coming months. AD&D or Tunnels and Trolls is likely to be up next.
It’s all part the 2016 strategy of packing in as many sessions as possible into every hidden corner of the week. Since we revived our interest in the hobby five years ago, it has been frustrating attempting to find the time for us to be around the table. Every planned session has been foiled by the demands of ‘the toad’ work and family life: “sorry I can’ t do Wednesday, its parents’ evening … Etc.”
The availability of online platforms like Roll20 has increased the potential of playing more game sessions as it reduces the palaver of getting in the same physical place at the same time. On top of its convenience, it has many features to enhance the game-playing experience, including the facility to load maps and reveal them as places are explored and animated dice to recreate the full experience of rolling across the table. There are features on the application that we haven’t used yet, for example, we’ve been using off-line PDF character sheets, Roll 20 has the facility to create interactive character sheets which are more accessible during the run of play.
This month, we have managed to play an unprecedented four sessions, only one of them being face-to-face around a real table. Remarkable.
In addition to the extra sessions, the online game has introduced us to more players, with all the richness and excitement that bigger parties can inject into a game. There are only three of us usually, so we have to double up character sheets and scale down pre-written campaigns to suit smaller groups. Having 5 and 6 different players with different perspectives and experiences has enlivened our approach to the game.
Following the last two sessions however, I’ve been struck by a troubling realisation: I talk too much. When I’m GMing online, I feel a constant need to keep going, keep the pace up, fill in the gaps with wiffle and waffle.
My usual style of Games Mastering consists of throwing forward a situation, sitting back while the players explore their ideas, only adding the occasional dramatic poke when the momentum drops. I’ve realised that when I’m GMing online, I’m doing twice the amount of talking that I would normally do at the table. Why? Why does the online experience cause me to become so voluble?
THE CONDITION OF MUZAK
Some of this can be accounted for in the conditions imposed by playing in ‘stolen moments’. Our regular Traveller session is a continuing campaign (The Aramis: Traveller Adventure), but it is designed in an episodic nature, hopping from planet to planet, with an over-arching plot that seeps into the episodes. These are 2 hour sessions (we have been remarkably strict in sticking to this timescale too). I have tried to achieve the dramatic beats of a continuing TV drama, with the action packed into the final third, and some tantalising cliff-hangers.
We’ve managed to achieve a sense of rhythm in play and the recent session was a scene of riotous fun as a planned rescue of a crew member from a church where he was being held captive, turned from genius to ridiculous by turns.
Despite the fun we’ve had playing the individual episodes, I have no idea how much the players are engaging with the overarching plot. There’s a conspiratorial narrative in the background that they’ve touched on and it will become increasingly important as time moves on, but at this point, I don’t know whether they’ve picked up on the elements of story, or the whether they’re even interested in pursuing it further. This could be down to the design of the adventure itself as it is written with lots of exposition, which I’ve tried to translate into action. I can’t help feeling that if we were playing around a table, I would be able to judge it better. As a consequence, I feel like I’m trying to over-compensate with information outside of the game, usually lengthy write ups on the Roll 20 forums.
The Saturday morning game was an adapted version of THE FANG AND THE FOUNTAIN from THE PERILS OF THE YOUNG KINGDOMS for Stormbringer. The next couple of podcasts will be all about the game, so I won’t steal my own thunder here. The structure was adapted to suit a one-shot:
- Keep it simple
- Have a big opening and an even bigger finish that calls back to the opening
- Make sure the characters know their objectives and know why they’re there and their relationship to the others
- Start the action as late into the story as possible
- Make sure that every character has a chance to shine
- Don’t kill the action with rules
The session worked well, with dice ‘virtually’ rattling around the screen, with death and destruction and body horror and demons and everything … but, it was hard-work, too much like hard-work. I don’t think it was down to injecting the scenario with usual energy that’s needed for a one-shot/ convention-like game, I think it was down to the channel … I was over-compensating for something lacking in the online experience.
“CAN YOU HEAR ME? …”
I don’t blame my players for this lack of engagement, they’re all intelligent, love RPGs, witty and want to get the best from the experience as possible. My incessant talking comes from the limitations of the online experience.
Firstly, even the reliable Roll20 can be a glitchy experience, because you are depending on many factors: the speed of broadband, individual wifi arrangements, the processing speed of your computer and the performance of the servers. If this is multiplied across 6 people, there are many opportunities for it to fail.
This usually manifests as warble from the sound, or a player web-cam disappearing momentarily.
Secondly, most people tend to stare blankly at the screen.
Combine these two elements and it results in me becoming like Lee Evans on speed. My internal monologue is going like this: “Have they heard me?” “Has the screen frozen again … he hasn’t moved for 5 minutes” “If I keep repeating the same thing … they’ll get it … I’ll say it again just in case”
In the last Traveller session, the conditions worked well because the party had split and were talking to each other by communicators. However, there was a point on Saturday, where I described a scene where a man was ringing a bell. A mist emerging over the beach, with children running towards the sea, the bell ringing intensified … the children screamed within the mist!”
Players confer, followed by … “We’ll go and talk to the man and ask why he’s ringing the bell.”
but … “The children are SCREAMING!”
As I say, I don’t blame the the players, it’s something to do with online playing. It’s the strange way that staring at each other in little inch by inch windows on computer screens, renders normal human discourse inert.
It’s really difficult to encourage players to engage with each other. Normally, around the table, there are visual clues of when to take a turn to speak, or gestures of encouragement when someone has had a good idea. Online play seems to eliminate these clues of interaction that we take for granted.
ROLL 20 20 VISION
Online tabletop games are a relatively new phenomena and I’m new to it, so like anything involved with RPGs, it will improve through playing more and players sharing tips and experiences with each other. I’ll get better at it as I do more of it because I’ll naturally want to get better.
I’m really enjoying the online gaming experience. I’ve really enjoyed meeting new players and had loads of fun during the sessions so far, but I know that it will get to the point where I’ll want more … I’ll want more of an engaging experience … more role-playing and discussion between players.
I’ll just want to stop hearing my own voice.
Dirk’s Five – There Is Nothing Like The Dame
Good day to re-visit this from Roof-Dirk from my other life.
A year on the Grog
I’m sat in the den, packing away the tinsel for another year, because Dirk Towers is saying farewell to the festive period. I’m back at work, serving The Master in return for food tokens, so I’ve begun to console myself in looking forward to 2016.
The first 6 months of the new year look like a veritable feast of gaming with an unprecedented 20 sessions planned between now and June. We haven’t done this much RPG since those heady days of the early 80s.
If we pull it off … if we pull it off … if …
The next episode of The Grognard Files podcast will be about Games Conventions in general and Dragonmeet 2015 in particular.While I was there, I got a (signed) copy of Nights Black Agents and I’ve been reading it ever since. The hardback is packed to the brim with resources and enough inventive ideas for you to shake a stake at, but I’ve had a difficultly getting my head around it. I suspect that there’s less to the Gumshoe system than meets the eye. It’s an example of what my English lecturer, Chris Baldick, used to refer to as ‘periphrasis’, in other words, a lots of words to say something very simple.
That said, when I’ve watched actual play demos, it actually seems workable, and I’m looking forward to being the director of a Bourne-meets-Buffy type extravaganza because I think it will suit my style of Games Mastering perfectly.
There’s a great demo-game available for download that will get them into the pace of the action in media res with an exciting car chase emulating the high-powered super-spy genre with great panache.
Night’s Black Agents is an improvised story game that uses the idea of ‘spending’ resources to improve the chance of success for your actions. Numenera uses a similar principle and for most of today, in between nursing a sick child, I’ve been preparing my character, because we’re going to start playing next month with Judge Blythy as the Games Master (or whatever irrelevant variant on the GM title Monte Cooke Games have devised).
It’s ages since I’ve enjoyed creating a character as much as I did making the choices for the Numenera. It’s relatively simple and allows a great deal of flexibility for the player to use their imagination to develop someone that they want to play, rather than being at the mercy of dice rolls.
Zadie Zenokey IV (or Zen 4) is a nano (a kind of Numenera magic user) with the descriptor of ‘Mechanical’ which gives her a great insight into the ways of the Numenera magic. Her focus is flesh and steel, the source of her magic is through ports in her spine and cables under her skin to a cpu on the right-side of her brain and her cybernetic left-arm. Her back story concerns her ancestors who were all but wiped out by a virus, the survivors and subsequent generations developed mechanics to cope with their mutations. Zen 4 has developed a secret order who are seeking the remaining Zenokey so they can reunite.
“DO SOME OLD”
It’s not all about the new stuff. Some of the highlights of the coming months include the continuing campaigns of Fungi from Yuggoth (CoC) and the Aramis campaign (Traveller), keeping it old school.
In February, I’ll be opening the Grognard File labelled STORMBRINGER, Fantasy Role-playing in the world of Elric. Over the past few weeks I’ve been rediscovering Moorcock and hitting e-Bay, filling the gaps in my collection of supplements. I’ve been overcome with an impulsive desire to consume souls, however it seems unlikely that I’ll be sated, therefore I’ve decided that I’ll run a game instead. We have one scheduled for the end of the month.
In the coming months, the Runequest classic bonanza will be released from Moon Design’s epic Kick Starter campaign, marking the celebrations of 50 years of Glorantha. In the podcast we have talked about our group reviving some of the classic Choasium games, so I’m going to continue this endeavour by resurrecting another OSR classic for my group.
On top of all this Armchair Adventuring, we’ve been invited to a marathon session of D&D 5th edition, which is very exciting.
So, as I plug myself into the collective unconscious of work, facing minor disappointments with stoic indifference, I can console myself that there is an escape pod available. As long as the Fun Prevention Officer gives me the key.
Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance
At the moment. I’m preparing the introduction to the Stormbringer episode of The Grog-Pod (due in February). This blog post does a great job at examining the various iterations and developments of the game. Recommended!!
Dragonmeet 2015 – Too Much Cthulhu?
I’m having attract-fish-flashbacks @GoodFriendsOfJE @dragonmeet
Numenera – a grognard’s guide from Blythy
I recently acquired the Numenera core rules. I’d heard a lot about it and it thought that maybe an old grognard like me should enter the 21st century or, to be more precise, the ninth age, the time in earth’s future when Numenera is set. The ninth age is a billion years into earth’s future and while the setting is essentially pseudo medieval fantasy (humanity has slipped back to that kind of era) there have been eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen. These civilisations are mysterious and unclear in their nature. However, some weren’t human and some had interstellar and even inter-dimensional travel. This means that there’s lots of technology lying about to be found and used by the human population. Moreover there are strange and mysterious energies in the atmosphere that some humans (Nanos) can harness and use rather like magic. That’s the basic setting but it’s important not to think of this as some post holocaust RPG – Aftermath or Gamma World. Yes, there will have been holocausts perhaps that brought down the previous great civilizations but this isn’t some post nuclear primitive world where the players will unearth a machine gun or an old iphone. It’s much stranger than that and much more like science fantasy. In literary terms I think the creators of the game have mentioned Gene Wolfe’s book of the new sun series. Another comparison could be Moorcock’s Hawkmoon books.
When I first got into RPGs in the early 80s one of the great advertising lines of RPG publisher’s was that to run fantastic adventures for your friends, “All you need is this book.” But it was never quite true. Dungeons and Dragons meant you had to buy three rule books at least (Player’s Handbook, DM’s Guide and Monster Manual), Runequest meant you really needed at least Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror. But with Numenera it really is the case that you only need the core rules. There’s masses of background for the setting, lists of artefacts, and monsters, all with full colour illustrations. Yes, you’ll want to buy the supplements (I’ve already bought the Ninth World Bestiary) but you don’t have to. I honestly think you could play regularly for several years with just the core rules.
The rules to Numenera are pretty straightforward and slick, deliberately so given that the game wants to encourage action and story rather than crunchy simulationist stuff. For a BRP grognard like me, I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity and logic of the central concept. In the same way that BRP reduces every action and task to a percentage, Numenera reduces it down to a score out of 10. Sometimes the score is determined by the rules (monster and NPC combat being the best example) or by the GM. What’s appealing is that it’s easy to conceptualise degrees of difficulty. How difficult something is on a score out of ten isn’t far removed from the way people think in ordinary life. For example, the players have to climb a rock face. The GM says it’s pretty difficult and gives it a 5 out of 10. The 5 is then multiplied by 3 and to climb the rock face, the players must each roll a 15 or more on a d20. Now I imagine that some of you are ahead of me at this point and have seen the obvious problem with such a system – anything given a difficulty level of 7 or more is literally impossible if multiplied by 3 and rolled on a d20. Well, yes it is because tasks like that are pretty difficult. For example, suppose that rock face had been made from some strange alien glass and covered with ice. The GM may have said it’s a 8. So a 24 or more on a d20. This is where skills, artifacts and stats come in. Your character might have a climbing skill and so he/she can reduce the difficulty two grades (now a 6) and then spend some points from their agility stat poll (more on that later) to reduce it by another grade (now a 5). So the roll to climb is now a 15 or more. Now difficult but do-able.
For grognards like me and my group, the most unsettling thing about Numenera is the stat pools or “spend system” element of the game. I know these type of systems are out there and nothing new these days but old timers like me are used to stats (STR, INT, DEX etc) being fixed and the only stat that goes up and down is hit points or maybe power in Runequest or SAN in Call of Cuthulhu. Numenera has three statistics – Strength, Agility and Intellect. As described above, the player’s use these stats as points to spend to achieve certain tasks or combat rolls. To go back to the example above of climbing the sheer glass wall. To reduce that 8, your character can spend three points from, for example, an agility of 12 to knock the difficulty down. Thier agility is now 9. Points replenish throughout the game, but it’s an odd concept on first reading when you’re used to fixed stats that give bonuses or penalties. I think this is the element my group might struggle with, especially when you consider that the stat pools also operate as hit points. It’s a big leap to ask players to consider using points they might need to soak up damage later to achieve tasks.
That said, I can see how the spend system ties into the idea of a more narrative form of RPG, which is one of the things Numenera wants to achieve. Imagine a point in the game where the villain raises his sacrificial dagger to strike and your character wants to knock it from his hand with a well placed arrow. A difficult shot but wouldn’t it look great in the film? Spend some stat pool points and you have a better chance of achieving it. The spend system allows the players to influence that narrative and events in a more dramatic way.
There are other elements of the system that also play into the idea of narrative and giving everyone the things they want from the game. There’s the idea of GM “Intrusions.” these are points in the game when the GM can offer experience points for giving the players a chance to accept a challenge. For example, maybe the players go into some ruins and have a map of the area. The GM may suggest that the map turns out to be wrong and useless. The players can accept this intrusion and earn experience points. It’s possibly the strangest element of the game and it remains to be seen how it will work out when we play. However, I can see how it could be the GM’s equivalent of a stat pool. While the stat pool’s allow the players to decide what they think is important to achieve, intrusions allow the GM to develop the story in ways that they players will enjoy. Moreover, the intrusions idea taps into another key these in the design of Numenera and that is that everyone should have fun and play the kind of game and character they want to play. The character creation system is a good example of this. Rather than roll dice, you describe your character in a phrase from a list of words in the rules. So for example you may choose to say your character is a Clever Glaive (fighter) to fights with two weapons. This then generates points and skills in line with the chosen words. Worth noting as well that that’s one of the more pedestrian descriptions available. You can be a shape changer who “howls at the moon” or a mutant with a “halo of fire.”
Again, for us grognards this seems a bit odd. But ask yourself this – how many times have you wanted to play a strong warrior and rolled a low STR score? Or a clever thief and rolled a low INT? That can be dissatisfying and resolving the problem by allocating points can lead to power gaming and min/maxing. Numenera offers players the chance to be what they want but without allowing them to power game the stats.
There are lots of other interesting elements of the system. The idea that the GM never rolls a dice is a very unusual idea. The monster and NPC stats are very easy to create on the hoof, which give the GM lots of flexibility.
It remains to be seen how Numenera will work in play. I’m still wading through the detailed setting. I think my group will find it a challenge in some ways but not in a bad way. If things get tricky when I’m running it I may just have to spend some intellect points and lower the level.
Current Vacancies: Crew Members Required
I’ve been preparing for a future podcast about TRAVELLER RPG and have found myself falling into a vortex of reading and re-reading the material that I once knew so well. I rarely refereed the game back in the day, but I was an enthusiastic player. I loved the potential of world-hopping: encountering the weird and the wonderful and being stuck with them in Low Passage for a week.
THE TRAVELLER ADVENTURE
Even the die-hard, rose-tinted fan will admit that most of the published adventures produced by GDW, in the little black books, were a bit weak. They provided a sketchy plot, a little local colour and a couple of plans and expected the referee to busk the rest while on the fly. If you were being generous you could describe them as a ‘framework’ for your gaming group to build upon. If you were being honest, you’d have to admit that they were a bit of a swizz.
There was an exception that proved the rule in the form of THE TRAVELLER ADVENTURE, which was the first real attempt at creating a ‘role-playing’ campaign pack, all the others seemed like deck-plans for a table-top SF skirmish, war game.
I played the adventure twice, and both times it was completely different, because of the style of play by the referee. The first time was brisk and combat heavy. The second was bureaucratic and talky. Both versions were wrapped in an intriguing plot.
ARAMIS: THE REVIVAL
I’m going to play it again… this time as a referee in an online game, and you are invited.
I need a crew for THE MARCH HARRIER, a 400 Ton subsidised merchant that serves the worlds of the ARAMIS TRACE. The subsidy is owned by a blind trust based on Regina and the crew will have a broad discretion in selecting cargoes, destinations and charters, providing basic financial and contract obligations are met.
THE MARCH HARRIER has been running the assigned route for over five years. It’s built up a credit of 80 weeks can begin operations outside of the ARAMIS TRACE at any time.
Presently the ship is in dock at the space port in LEEDOR the capital of ARAMIS …
The game will take place fortnightly in short sessions (in the style of a space opera serial!) online.
‘Session Zero’ will commence on Wednesday 23/09/2015 – Google Hangouts, using the Roll 20 app. Commencing at 21.00 until about 23.00 – a chance to meet your fellow crew members and to walk through the decks of THE MARCH HARRIER.
If you are interested … then please let me know and I’ll get you on the roll call … join me – it’s going to be a blast!