The Alphastream Game Design Blog
I’ve been sharing my 4-session Numenera campaign based on the WondLa novels by Tony DiTerlizzi. You can find the introduction, the first session where the characters discovered their world was nothing like Earth, the second session where they finally found some answers, and the third session where they finally find another human! Hailey, a young human pilot, takes them aboard a dirigible to the last human city. This was the final session of our campaign, even through I was roughly at the start of the second (of three novels). Obviously, I condensed a lot. This was made easier by my wanting this to be the players’ story rather than that of the novels.
As they traveled Hailey showed them an ancient video, where a man named Cadmus Pryme urges the government to seed humanity in Sanctuaries so that it may survive. Humans would emerge over time, once the planet stabilized and was no longer toxic. The party finally had some answers as to where they were and what had happened. Still, they didn’t understand how Orbona and the new sentient species fit into this.
Hailey took them to the city of New Attica, where Cadmus still lived and led the small city. Only humans lived here. Their lives were quite decadent, but also felt artificial and controlled. The players had fun exploring the city and picking up on out-of-place elements. Nothing prepared them for when they went to the apartments they had been granted. They opened the door to find Destine waiting there for them!
Burton, Leestov, Fugu, and Rovender soon discover that this is Destine Eight, not Destine Nine (who died in the oasis). The program that seeded humanity used clones, and they are all an iteration of their particular “person”! Destine’s player was happy to again be in the game, but he learned that Destine was a rebel seeking to prove that Cadmus was plotting dark deeds.
Numenera is excellent for moving quickly. The rolls can be more abstract than specific skill uses, in a way that works in this RPG but would feel artificial or thin in D&D. When they go searching, they quickly find more than they bargained for, including laboratories where Hailey and others are being operated upon to change their personalities away from having too much free will. If they can’t be controlled, the brains go into Muthr units, such as the ones that raised them! Leestov Nine was very upset to learn this about Muthr, but he also took the opportunity to recover some parts. (I of course made a note of that!)
In one of the labs they rescued an Orbonan prisoner, Huxley, who is a royal scout. The characters flee with him and Huxley, but along the way to the airship they learn that Cadmus is working with another Orbonan who looks a lot like Arius. This is his brother, Lorac, and he is evil to the core. It all begins to come together: Orbonans came to Earth, thinking it abandoned, when in reality humanity was sleeping – in the form of select clones waking slowly as conditions improved. According to Huxley, the Orbonans had a special device named the Vitae Virus generator. It awakens planets… and seems to have created all of the strange alien life now found on Earth/Orbona. Cadmus wants to take back Earth for humans only, and plans to join his army to Lorac’s intelligence, so as to take over the world. Lorac is playing Cadmus, waiting for Cadmus to topple the Orbonan government before betraying Cadmus and becoming the true leader.
The party had options. I decided that any of these options would be the finale, and all foes and some allies would converge on the location they chose.
The party chose the option I least expected!
In the novel, Eva Nine stops at the Heart and is transformed here. I decided to improvise and make that transformation a key part of the scene. I also wanted to wrap up a few loose ends, while giving party members a chance to shine. This was the big showdown!
The party traveled through the lush alien forest and arrived at the bowl-shaped heart. In the very center could be seen the ruins of an HRP facility – a sanctuary just like the one where they had been raised (from cloned embryos). The Vitae Virus generator was a machine the Orbonans had launched at Earth to make it livable, and it had just happened to strike a Sanctuary. Among the twisted metal and broken stone Leestov could see a metallic body… a Muthr unit! Destine of Eight wondered which clone iteration was meant to grow here, and wanted to end Cadmus’ plan once and for all. Burton could also feel the power of this place – the Heart was otherworldly, with a capacity for both light and darkness. Fugu could feel how alive this place was – every living thing spoke to him. As he concentrated he realized the Heart was not just a place. It was a being of immense power.
Burton Nine could see the scheming alien, Lorac, approaching with Cadmus and several human troops and war machines. However, Cadmus soon receives a transmission – his own war machines are attacking both the Orbonan capital and the humans’ New Attica, because Lorac has programmed the war machines! (This was something they could have stopped, had the party chosen differently)
The human guards and war machines attacked with brutal efficiency, meeting Destine of Eight, Fugu, and Leestov. Burton used his speed and stealth to strike at Cadmus, who went down quickly – he was an elder with no special power beyond his intellect. Lorac was formidable, however! Leestov made his way to the Muthr unit, finding that it was in the sanctuary’s pond, the pond thick with bacteria from the Vitae Virus generator… the essence of HRP-001’s Muthr had fused with the Vitae Virus, becoming the Heart of the Forest! The entity rose up, a colossal spectral blue-green tree, lights flickering throughout it. It began to lash out with pseudopods at random creatures. Each round I rolled, and anything could be the target. The first round a human guard was transformed into a shambling plant – becoming far more dangerous. Burton (Clever Jack Who Explores Dark Places) was struck and became part-shadow, because the transformation was an awakening, based on the desires/personality of the creature. For PCs, the character immediately received sufficient XP to level up twice, representing new powers. Burton could now travel from shadow to shadow, traversing the battlefield very quickly.
Adding a further complication, Besteel arrives… and he carries the remains of the original Muthr with him. Leestov attacks with great fury, seeking to recover the body. Fugu reaches out to the forest, commanding plant creatures to attack Besteel as he tries to convince the enormous entity that he wishes for balance to be restored. Fugu is touched by the pseudopods and the Strong-Willed Nano who Focuses Mind Over Matter becomes a plant-like being now fully able to control Orbona’s fauna and flora.
When Besteel falls, Leestov (the Mechanical Nano who Talks to Machines) gathers up Muthr and brings her to the pool. There he uses the parts he found in New Attica to try to restore her. The colossal entity seems to understand this. However, a sacrifice is needed. Leestov slips into the pool and lets his life force go… he sacrifices himself, merging with Muthr and the generator to become a human-machine hybrid.
The furious battle continued, slowly turning to be in the heroes’ favor due to their actions. Destine of Eight’s combat skills (a Daring Glaive who Fights with Panache) were instrumental, but the many wounds he suffered again took their toll. He fell to the ground… and was reborn once more as a glowing white version of himself. The entity joined the party in fighting Lorac and the last of the foes fell before them.
The novel ends in a really cool way. It has short chapters spaced out across different times. Each leaps ahead to tell us how life has changed on Orbona. It is a bittersweet ending – you see the characters die, but also see their legacy.
I asked the players to do the same. They imagined and discussed and chose what would happen near-term. With Lacus and Cadmus out of the picture, Orbona was safe. The people of New Attica would move to live with the Orbonans. With the help of their allies, the heroes could create an alliance that would last.
They then imagined and chose what would happen 100 years from now. Their powers would grow as a result of their transformation, and they could imagine any possible future. I don’t recall the exact details, but it was fun. The essence of what they had roleplayed became the future of the planet.
This was a relatively short campaign, but felt far longer. The combination of the Numenera system and using a great novel trilogy as the basis for the plot really worked well. It gave great depth while allowing us to move quickly. There were issues. DM Intrusions always felt too mechanical and, well, intrusive, rather than narrative. XP felt like the wrong system for the game – players didn’t want to spend it on re-rolls and felt the XP system was too detailed for this type of game. As a DM, not rolling did free me up to be more creative, but it also made me less familiar with the rules. The game is surprisingly light. Most of the rules would really fit in a tiny book or a few pages.
It was interesting for me to consider this game and its history – it is what Monte Cook created after his brief time at Wizards of the Coast working on 5E. It was obviously a tough situation, but I hope that enough time has passed that both MCG and WotC could mend fences and feel comfortable in praising each other’s games. That’s the best for our hobby. I’ve been really impressed by companies that embrace others (Evil Hat is a great example) and they don’t do it because of PR – they do it because they genuinely appreciate what others created.
None of this would have been possible without Tony DiTerlizzi’s amazing writing and art. Support him by picking up the WondLa novels or his recent book, Realms: The Roleplaying Art of Tony DiTerlizzi. And, check out Numenera! You can support them the most by buying directly from their site.