Friday, February 6, 2015

Numenera, or: How I Learned to love Antimatter Grenades in my Fantasy RPGs

Last night I tried out a one-shot session of that RPG I've been keeping my eye on ever since the Kickstarter came out back in 2012: Numenera.

On paper, it's a little bit iffy for my tastes, which is why I didn't end up supporting the Kickstarter. It's ostensibly a fantasy RPG with very heavy science fiction elements, based on one of Arthur C. Clarke's laws of prediction, where he states that any sufficiently advanced technology becomes indistinguishable from magic.

The Setting
So we have the Ninth World, where the previous eight iterations of mankind died out, but not before leaving behind powerful, at times godlike technological artifacts, known as numenera. So mixed with our fantasy we have robots, extradimensional beings, mutants, antimatter rifles, nanoswarms, cyborgs and space flight, but the poor ignorant savages of the Ninth world are, to continue with the Clarke references, a bunch of (relative) monkeys screaming at mysterious monoliths and treating everything like it was magic.

Which is cool and all, don't get me wrong, but in practice, when you're playing the game, it's hard to really get into because the numenera have become such a part of life in the Ninth World, which makes the setting, well, so alien. If your GM, for example, tells you a half-metallic man flourishing a halberd festooned with shimmering cables and protruding circuitry, and riding on the back of a huge two-legged beast that has tiny arms protruding from its lower jaw comes toward you, it's hard to tell if this is a city guard greeting newcomers, or powerful cyber-marauder looking for trouble. When everything is just so unfamiliar, and the world chock-full of the mind-bogglingly different, what is our baseline for "normal?"

Disassembler, above: Street cleaner,  or homicidal ancient automaton? Why don't you come up to it and ask? Image from the Numenera Core Rulebook. 

On the other hand though, that's also the appeal of the setting. The Ninth World and its tiny oases of known civilization, the kingdoms of The Steadfast, just has so much weirdness to explore that it's as much a fun adventure for the GM as it is for the players who go on the actual adventure. And speaking of how fun it is for the GM, I am absolutely in love with the powerful simplicity of the game system.

Character creation
It takes about ten minutes to make a character, five if you know what you're doing. You complete the sentence "(character name) is a (descriptor adjective) (character type) who (focus verbs)." Mine was "Whyttman is a Swift Jack who Rides the Lightning."

Your descriptor is an adjective that gives you bonuses and penalties. "Swift" gives my character a bonus to the speed stat, a penalty to balance-related actions, and trained skills in running and initiative. "Tough" gives bonus healing, and damage reduction, "Mechanical" gives you a unique understanding and the ability to identify unknown numenera at the cost of giving you a not-quite-human air that spooks NPCs in social encounters, etc.

Image from the Numenera
 Core Rulebook
The three character types are common RPG archtypes that also give you your base stats and skills. There's Glaives (fighters), and Nanos (tech-users who can harness the power of numenera, who the local populations look at as priests and wizards), and the types unlock more powerful abilities and features as they level up. The third class, Jacks, are generalists that have access to both sets of abilities, and can cherry-pick the most useful features from both types, but they unlock the more powerful abilities later than the specialists.

The third part of your character, the focus, is what makes your character unique in the Ninth World. "Rides the Lightning" gives me lightning powers so I can cast lightning bolts from my hands, or infuse my arrows with electricity. When I level up, I gain the ability to travel instantaneously via lightning bolt. Other foci include "Meshes Steel and Flesh," so that the character over time gains mastery over mysterious cybernetic implants all over her body. "Howls at the the Moon" is (the curse of? Gift of?) lycanthropy, which at higher levels becomes stronger evem as the characters control over the transformation becomes more precise.

It's a great system, and, coming from something as clunky-simulationistic as Shadowrun, it's refreshing to be able to come up with a character without spending two or three hours poring over tables and charts. I would've wanted a bit more flexibility with the abilities vs. penalties (a fast guy automatically has bad balance? A stealthy character always moves more slowly than the average person?), but it's something I can easily forgive with such a simple but surprisingly robust creation system.

Basically, the players do ALL the rolling. Any encounter, whether it's a rampaging blood turkey (yes, they're in the game), or a control panel for an automated door, or haggling with a merchant for the price of a wagon, is given a difficulty level by the GM. Players then have a target number to reach-- in combat, it's the same number needed to hit the monster, and to avoid its attacks.
Behold,  the Blood Barm,  in all its blood-spitting,  bloodsac-covered glory.  Image from the Numenera Core Rulebook. 

If the number is too high to normally roll naturally on a d20, players can expend Effort, lowering their stats to show how much effort it costs them, for a bonus. But these same stats are also your hit points, so then it becomes an exercise of resource- and risk-management. The GM can also intrude on the combat-- the monster may suddenly behave in a different manner (you mean different from normal blood turkeys? How can the words normal and blood turkeys exist in the same sentence?), or your cyberclaw malfunctions and retracts back into your arm, etc. This intrusion is worth XP, not the encounter itself. And rolling a 1 (there were several rolled last night), means the GM gets to complicate the players' lives without awarding XP. And players can always counteract these intrusions by paying XP, but this is the same XP that you later on use to advance your character. It's also interesting to note that XP is awarded from intrusions and the discovery of new numenera, not from killing things. It's a refreshing take, making exploration and discovery a higher priority than combat.

This simple, powerfully flexible, highly-interactive system leaves the GM a lot of elbow room to tell a story without having to worry about rules to back up something that would be otherwise totally awesome, and cinematic. Of course, this also means the players lean more heavily on the GM for telling a good (balanced) story, and trust him to make intrusions that will tell a better story, not just kill them. But any RPG is a social contract between player and GM anyway-- it's just that the contract you write up in Numenera seems more like a friendly handshake, instead of pages and pages of clauses to slavishly follow.

Overall, Numenera was, is, a blast. It has a few wonky things going on, like how the science fiction doesn't follow any rules and structures (last night a player threw a grenade that "temporarily inverts the ethics of the targets" at a bunch of guards, and hilarity ensued.) But the far-out weirdness of the world carries its own charm, and paired with a simple but very capable ruleset, promises easy GMing that can focus more on story-telling than rules, and really, the stories are what make RPGs fun for me.

So yeah, two conclusions from all this: now I definitely regret not backing the Kickstarter, and Whytmann will definitely be back.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Part 2: The End Times Cometh Returns

Warming: Naked Hodor ahead. 

Above: not Warhammer.
Now we'll go into making an actual Agenda system that was inspired by Triumph and Treachery mechanics as mentioned in my previous post. First of all, why not just use T&T wholesale and call it a day? Because it was made for true multiplayer (1 vs. 1 vs. 1) instead of a team match. The fluff also didn't quite work for everyone: you'd have cards that let you tempt opponents with gold, for example, or disrupt a unit with a gas bomb-- the latter seems like something the Skaven would come up with, but maybe not, say, the Bretonnians or Tomb Kings.

The end goal of Triumph & Treachery is also to simply amass the most gold through cards, and this feels pretty board-gamey for Warhammer. Don't get me wrong, I love boardgames, but when I play Warhammer, I chuck dice to smash face, not earn fake money!

Secret Agendas
I've been playing a lot of Malifaux recently, and one thing I absolutely love about it (aside from the fantastic models) is the Scheme system: players choose a set of objectives hidden from their opponent to gain victory points, from making sure a specific enemy (or even friendly!) model dies, to capturing (but not killing) certain characters, to playing hot potato with a cursed object against the enemy crew. A system where you could use hidden objectives to help teammates or stab them in the back for points sounded promising, and in keeping with how an alliance between different Chaos  factions, or alliances between the forces of Undeath and Order, would work.

First consideration: Alliance cards help your teammate, betrayal cards make them lose. But that would mean no decision-making on the part of the player-- I'll always play Alliance cards, and never play Betrayal, because why would I want my team to lose? Solution-- well, what if it's played as a team battle, but in the end, only ONE PLAYER could win? Aha. Now we have a motivation to be devious, like putting more Game of Thrones into Warhammer, only with less gratuitous nudity and Jon Snow pouting.

Which is a good thing, because with your average gamer, Game of Thrones-style nudity
 would look like this.                                                                      Image from

Deciding the Victor
Does the winning player only come from the winning team, or can he also come from the losing team? I decided to let the winning player come from either team, to see if it would solve a problem from long battles: if the match becomes one-sided, which it could in some cases, how to we keep it fun for the losing team, considering they still have several hours worth of losing to play? By giving the losing team players a chance to eke out an individual win, you keep them interested in the game, to see if they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But we want to reward the winning team, so:

At the end of the game, each player tallies their total team VP score from killing enemy models, and gets the average VP Score. Members from the winning team get to add 500 pts to their individual score. Then each player's individual score is modified by his agenda cards.

To encourage the use of Agenda cards while having each player constantly calculate risk vs. reward (always very important, to make each decision count and keep the game interesting), Alliance cards will give the TEAM a benefit by working together, but the individual's score will suffer. Betrayal cards work in reverse: by using them, players can make the team suffer, but reap individual benefits (as a well-planned betrayal should). So:

Welp, if you say so, buddy. 
Alliance cards left in the player's hand (unused) give bonus points to the final individual score, and Betrayal cards left in the players hand give penalties. The value of the bonuses and penalties will be indicated on the cards.

This gives an interesting side benefit that works out well in the fluff: since alliance cards are valuable to each player, they will tend to delay using them unless they really have to (ie when they feel they are losing). How many stories are there about disparate armies coming together on the battlefield, when faced with a superior enemy? And winning armies will also soon find one betrayal being played after another-- if players sense their team is about to win near the end of the game, they'll start trying to unload Betrayal cards, like a pack of overconfident warlords turning on each other at the last moment when they're winning. It's one of those ideal situations where the rules and the fluff complement each other perfectly.

I also thought this captured the fractured nature of many warhammer alliances-- also perfect for a multiplayer game where you don't know who and what armies end up showing!

Next post, the Betrayal and Alliance cards themselves!

Monday, January 26, 2015

The End Times Cometh

Are those the tormented souls of some of the  Old World's
most powerful entities swirling around  your monstrous
reincarnated form, or are you just happy to see me?
So last week, I and a couple of the guys at the club, as a sort of friendly interclub event with another Warhammer group, put together a big Warhammer Fantasy battle, because Mat just got his new Nagash model painted, and, well, to have Nagash in a battle, you'll need something appropriately epic for the End Times.

Part of the unique challenge to setting this up is the fact that Warhammer isn't really designed for large multiplayer battles. For one thing, how will the Winds of Magic rolls work? 2d6 isn't nearly enough to dole out amongst several players' worth of spellcasting, and too much means magic will be OP. How about rules for Inspiring Presence, or Battle Standard Bearers?

Another problem that big battles usually have is that it just takes. Too. Damn. Long. The last one we had with four players to a side at 2400 points clocked in at  eleven hours, of which the later half was just a chore: energy was low, tempers were running high, and it just eventually became thoroughly unenjoyable for many of the players.

Add to this the requirement of keeping the battle as fluffy as possible, and, well, it quickly turns into a thorny nest of problems-within-problems to solve for an organizer. For this entry, I'll discuss both the logistical and fluff considerations and the solutions that I came up with for the event.  The challenge could be summed up in three words-- I needed this battle to be Fluffy, Balanced, and Fun.

Who is Nagash?
Also, he takes killer selfies.
Art by John Sullivan
Nagash  is the creator of Necromancy in the Old World. In early game history, he was poised to take over the continent several times, but was destroyed in turns by powerful warrior-kings, and magical backstabbing. The new Warhammer End Time series of stories and rules dedicate an entire volume to his return, from the blood-fuelled ritual that killed off major Warhammer characters, to his return to his old country (now overrun by undead pharoahs and their legions), and his uniting all the undead factions by force, all of which culminate in his raising an army powerful enough to challenge the Chaos gods themselves, who are busy launching a seemingly-unstoppable invasion of the Old World.

Choosing Sides
So here we've got the primary combatants in this battle: on one side, Nagash and his undead legions, on the other Chaos united. Stuck in between is the Empire and other Forces of Order, though in the Nagash book he ends up helping them hold against The Chaos hordes. For the purposes of this battle, then, it'll be Nagash and "the good guys" vs. Chaos.

As any local gaming event organizer will know, one of the hardest parts of putting a big game together is getting people to simply commit and show up for the battle. While we got about a dozen guys expressing interest in joining, I was highly doubtful that everyone would show up, meaning that I couldn't count on pulling off a series of thematic, interlocked battles on several tables/battlefields.

The Order of Battle
Originally, I was envisioning a main battle played on the largest table, and on other, smaller,  tables, being played simultaneously, would be scenarios that would directly affect the main battle. Like one table would have an Empire army defending a pass against Chaos Beastmen trying to outflank the main battle line, and any Chaos units that got through would mean the appear *behind* enemy lines to wreak havoc. Or the ratty Skaven engineers invent a gigantic artillery piece that could lob warp energy across many miles to bombard the main battle every turn, and the Warriors of Chaos must march to neutralize the threat and seize the cannon (deployed as a terrain piece) from the defending Skaven.

 Of course, this all goes out the window fluffwise if I can't even count on people reliably showing up with the appropriate armies, so I had to come up with a flexible system that could accommodate basically any army that shows up, and still be in keeping with the fluff.

So. Where do we go from here? A multiplayer variant of Warhammer, called Triumph and Treachery, served as an inspiration. Fluffwise, it also worked-- since many of Nagash's lieutenants had been forced into servitude, many of them were manipulating events into their favor, creating a great undercurrent of politics. This backstabbing is also a regular occurrence, even among the Forces of Order who had their own traitors and political intrigue to deal with.

Alliance and Betrayal
One thing that quickly became apparent when reading the Nagash story is that everyone has their own agenda. Mannfred Von Castein, ruler of Sylvania, must come to terms with the return of Vlad von Castein, an arguably more powerful vampire lord who began the dynasty and is asserting his authority. The Imperial Archmagister, Balthasar Gelt, turns to the dark art of necromancy to help stave off Chaos, losing his soul and will to the dark art. The Skaven, responsible for the destruction of Nagash in one of his earlier incarnations, try to devise a plan to protect themselves against his inevitable vengeance even as they maneuver to to take advantage of the Chaos incursion. While different factions are banding together, there are old animosities that still simmer beneath the fragile bonds of alliance, and I wanted that reflected somehow in the way the battle played.

A system, then, that allowed for a flexible banding together of different armies would allow for last minute additions and dropouts to the player roster, and still retain the tenuous alliance and backstabbing politics of the Old World. In my next post, we'll go over this system, and what I hoped to accomplish in designing it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


*tap mike* he-- hello? Is this on? Hello? I don't think it's on.  Can you check theHEY THERE! You! First blog post,  yeah! So anyway here is the current gaming situation, in my first State of the Gamer Address, to let you know-- and to remind myself-- of the direction(s) we'll be going over the next few posts:

1.1. Warhammer
What am I NOT doing for Warhammer? Organizing a large multiplayer battle to kick off the year in Warhammer Fantasy, coming up with new rules for it, and quickly assembling some Daemons of Chaos to participate next Monday are not part of that list. A little discussion of the rules I've come up with is impending.

Also have a load of orcs and goblins on the painting back burner.  What is the collective noun for orcs? A horde? A WAAGH? A verdure? Also, to paint: the rest of the Daemons,  so will be posting some WIPs soon. As well as a sweet sweet Kickstarter that will probably take FOREVER to finish,  so I can't wait!

1.2. Bolt Action
Have a load of regular British Infantry that also  need painting-- been sticking to a small elite,  fully-painted Airborne force, which means that when my artillery misfires and hits any of them (which, by the way, is ALL THE TIME), a huge chunk of points go swirling down the toilet like so many of my hopes and dreams.

1.3. Malifaux
Ugh.  Another entry in the "to paint" queue. Of my four crews, two are fully painted. Have also, unexpectedly,  amassed a ridonkolous amount of cards. But hey, at least it's diceless! So far though, having a blast with the system, and will be dedicating a lot of blogspace and battle reports to this in the near future.

1.4. Saga
Been shanghaied into playing Gripping Beast's historical skirmish game by friends, and am now in possession of 26 first-century Scots. This means, of course, that I will paint them as Hollywoodly, historically-inaccurate as possible: green tartan, blue Braveheart facepaint. Now if I can only do something about their flaccid spears. Which is now the number one contender for my warband name.
from the clan McShrinkage

2. RPGs
2.1. Shadowrun 5e
Following a fun session  I GMed for some friends, will be following it up with another run soon. Remind me to tell you how the first run went, sometime. The rules still make my head hurt, but the pounding in my temples when I try to navigate the rulebook or look something up at least now has a catchy beat.

Love, thy will be done. 
3.1. Dragon Age: Inquisition
Finally finished,  after only 100 hours of play! So naturally I immediately rolled up another character. And taking another crack at wooing Cassandra: Warrior Princess,  who broke it off with my previous character without my noticing until several dozen hours worth of play after. It's like high school all over again.

3.2. ROME 2: Total War
I've started up a new campaign,  and thoroughly enjoying the new rig,  which can now handle everything at max settings. After action reports and screenshots will at some point hurtle in your direction like flaming boulders hurled by ballistae.

3.3. Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor
The third entry of Games I Am Playing This Year That Have a Colon in the Title,  now my go-to for instant gratification, and when I have only 30 minutes to play something. Again, must think up a collective noun for greenskins.

3.4. Other games in the pipeline
Prison Architect, Civ Beyond Earth,  and the rest of the Pile of Shame I've built up over many a long, cold Steam sale. Because I dont play enough games, apparently.

4.1. Lots of incoming things  for which I am all hot and bothered: Rum&Bones, Dead of Winter, Dwarf King's Hold. There's also maybe Sails of Glory. And Battletech perhapsmaybe. As well as some musings about Android: Netrunner, and Cat Tower, because I have toxoplasmosis in the brain.

So I have a lot to write,  between games, and I am fairly slightly confident that we'll get around to definitely some of most of them, eventually. Stay tuned!