The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(As before, this contains spoilers for the WondLa novels. They are wonderful and you should consider reading them first. They are also a great gift for kids ages 7-8 or older.)
In our first session the characters discovered that they had always grown up (perhaps even been grown) to prepare to exit their underground bunker. An attack by a strange creature forced them away from their parent robot (appropriately named Muthr) and into the world… which was not their own. Exploring, they found that the strange world had unusual and even dangerous plants, and that the other facility similar to theirs was in ruins. It was very similar, down to a similar robot unit.
This session was all about increasing the scope of just how strange their world was, and of heightening the questions. Are they on Earth? (If so, what happened to it?) Are they somewhere else? (If so, why) Why were they raised in a lab by a robot? Why did this creature attack them? I mirrored the narrative in the first WondLa novel, but in the novel she visits two cities to get answers. I collapsed Lacus and Solas into one to reduce time and concentrate the fun. Also, because of the characters’ choices, we didn’t have Muthr around to help. That changed the dynamic a bit.
One of Numenera’s interesting concepts is “DM Intrusion.” In a nutshell, and to capture how the narrative should be led by the players, the DM can choose to interpose their will, but should call it out as an offer/bargain to the player(s) and if they accept they get experience (which can be used in a variety of ways, including burning it to reroll).
DM Intrusions seem to capture a novel well. In the WondLa novel, the hunter Besteel sets a trap for Eva Nine and manages to capture her. The capture leads her (and Rovender) to meet a very interesting creature, and to learn about Besteel. So, as the party came out of the ruined HRP facility, I was going to offer an Intrusion to have the hunter capture them. Instead, what they wanted to do led to skill checks and a horrible roll, which granted me an Intrusion of sorts. I took that, stopped to explain Intrusions (since we were learning the game), and then deployed the ambush as a huge net which lifts them up into the trees. The net tightens the more they struggle and also applies a paralyzing effect as they struggle, limiting their tactics.
Besteel had a powered glider and used it to move the net and his new prisoners to a temporary camp. There the party could see several creatures he had hunted. Fugu Nine again felt a strange connection to something living… this time to a massive creature. I used the Skysmasher from the Numenera Creature Deck, with just a few minor changes. It was named Otto, and despite its fearsome size and ability to jump-fly around the world, it was a gentle and kind beast mourning that Besteel had killed its friend and would soon kill it too. Everything here was alien: Besteel, the captured creatures, Besteel’s gear, etc.
The party did what all good parties do and came up with a great plan to free Otto, grab a weapon, cut the net before it paralyzed them, and escape. They more or less managed to do that, minus a very paralyzed PC (I think Destine) and a few other surprises. Now riding Otto, they escaped and headed to the city of Lacus, where Rovender knew of a wise creature named Arius.
Numenera Talk: I have read a fair bit about DM Intrusions, and so far they don’t fit my style of play. I like to actively change things up when I think it will make the session better. Having PCs captured isn’t something I would do normally (too forced), but if I saw a way to do it that I thought would make for a great story then I would try to make that happen. Done well, it would be an organic fun situation. The act of calling attention to it, “Hey, I’m thinking of this, would you accept it, here’s this bribe…” freezes the action and separates it in an artificial way, right where the “seam” of the narrative transition is taking place. I bought the Numenera mini-sourcebook on Intrusions, but still found DM intrusions an awkward device.
Numenera Talk: I also found combat very interesting. It takes a bit of time to understand the target numbers and how much of a challenge creatures will be. It doesn’t feel like a system where the DM has to be exact when designing a challenge, in part because players can do a lot to mitigate the odds. A difficult-on-paper encounter could be a very low challenge if the players burn resources… but that might make the next scene much harder because the resources aren’t there. Most of the fights so far ended up a bit easier than I expected, and I was glad that I had thought through some ways to mitigate this (for example, giving important foes some armor to absorb damage). I found my experience with D&D 4E especially helpful, because I’m comfortable giving a monster a one-shot power or otherwise modifying the fight to jack up the threat level. In part 3 we would see the opposite problem… where monsters can suddenly overwhelm a PC who fails to dodge a blow.
Lacus is a cool alien town, consisting of massive pillars rising out of the water and on each a city that looks almost like an ice-cream cone made of bubbles… where the bubbles are houses on platforms. I combined this city with Solas, the capital in the novel.
The party sought Arius, a sage-like creature who levitated above the ground and had a bizarre appearance including multiple arms. Arius answered some questions in a cool enigmatic scene (including that they came to this planet, Orbona, from a dying world and found no humans here, plus a prophecy/riddle they would puzzle over until the final session), then directed them to his brother Zin, who works in the museum. In the museum they found some items from an HRP Sanctuary, all displayed as if belonging to a long-dead ancient people. When they looked for Zin, they were captured by a taxidermist who works with Besteel and was intent on dissecting them for clearly being aliens.
Of course, the party had some great ideas and thwarted the taxidermist. They found Zin and convinced the historian and curator to help. Zin tells them about the Wastelands, a land of ruins and danger where humans may have once lived. This becomes their new goal… but alarms ring out across the museum. It seems the Queen of Orbona herself has ordered Besteel to hunt down strange creatures, and the taxidermist has likely alerted both the Queen and Besteel that they are here!
Here ended the second session. There were some great scenes here for all of us, especially the very different reactions the players had to the information. Burton was very focused on Besteel and the danger elements. Fugu and Rovender were interested in Otto and the puzzle of Orbona’s ecology vs humanity. Destine and Leestov were really curious about why they had been raised in a lab and why the lab expected this to be Earth.
The Numenera system worked very well as a light way to provide mechanics but otherwise get out of the way and let us tell stories together. It was also fast, allowing us to move at a fast speed narratively. Of course, it also lacked some teeth. I worked hard to bring the rules to bear often enough to keep the players enjoying the RPG aspect and not just the story side. As I mentioned last time, because the DM doesn’t roll (the players do, even for monsters) and because we were playing every 2-3 weeks, I often forgot the rules and had to turn to the players. This made it hard for me to learn the system and feel fluent (for example, picking the right task levels and recalling what aspects of a monster make it a challenge).
The system worked very well for Jonathan Liu, who had read the novels and interviewed Tony DiTerlizzi. He is an avid board gamer, but plays RPGs infrequently. Despite this being a very different system, he was able to learn it and work with it very easily. He joined us just for this session to play Rovender.
Next time: We will head into the Wastelands… and have our first character death! We will also turn the tables on the alien world… revealing one of the great secrets.