Numenera 7: Complications

I did a bad job last session of handing out GM Intrusions. I ended up only dishing out one optional Intrusion and spinning out one natural-1 Intrusion, Meef’s Creeper. I’m trying to figure out which comes first, the good session or the intrusions because when I’m alert and awake enough to pull a bunch of intrusions, the session usually goes well. If I’m not sharp enough to insert the intrusions, I’m usually not doing too good a job with everything else.

Sweet, sweet XP.

The XP cards are important – it’s important that the players view the XP as currency, because that’s pretty much what they are and that’s not usually how they work. They’re not bricks in a pyramid like D&D XP. At the most basic use, they make your character permanently better. But they’re also for players to control the story a little bit more – shooting down Intrusions and making short/medium/long term differences in the game. We’ve never really gone too much into that (until last night) but that’s why I think it’s important to have the cards in front of you, rather than tallied on a character sheet. They should never get so comfortable that you feel like you can track them with a pencil. They should be back and forth, the weave of the story flowing with them. Of course, that means I have to actually give them out, which I failed at last week and if I want things to tick along, that has to be a bigger part of my job as GM.

So this past week I sat down with a bunch of post-it notes and drafted some Intrusions customized for each character as well as a bunch of generic intrusions that could happen to anyone. Some characters that’s easy to do – Meef’s phasing, for example, is a shortcut for that character and he doesn’t really understand how it works, so making it go haywire sometimes (for good or ill) is easy to do. Red, on the other hand is a little tougher – she’s graceful and fights with two weapons, i.e. she’s good at these things, they aren’t shortcuts or wacky abilities, she earned these things. But I can’t only write Intrusions based on the character descriptors/foci, otherwise it starts seeming like phasing or fighting with two weapons is a liability. You can only have a tomahawk knocked from your hand so many times before you start wondering if maybe a spear is a better way to go.

Fortunately, the players have given me good characters to work with so there are ways that relatively generic things like “You are recognised by someone” mean very different things to Red (ah, a fan!), Giana (Oh, no! They found me!), Sharad (Yes, I remember you too), or Meef (Wait, who?). So those can be spun out in different ways.

MCG also made Intrusions cards and put them in the starter set, but it is made clear that these are really just to get you started.

Ultimately though, most Intrusions seem like they’re going to be situational and so preparing specifics when so much of the game is improvised isn’t too useful. It’s better to understand why you’re giving them out and how you can use them. Fortunately this is well documented in the rulebook and there’s a cheap additional .pdf you can buy from MCG that drills into it a little more. These small rules supplements/elaborations are called Glimmers and they’re a neat idea. The rulebook lacks for – it seems – nothing. It’s four fucking hundred pages long and so dense, yet so good. But getting a little bit more, basically a magazine feature article’s worth by the guy who wrote the game is a fine deal, I think. Other Glimmers include collections of cyphers and oddities, how to hit the right note regarding the weird of the Ninth World, or advice on putting (gulp, collar tug) love and sex into the game, or Lovecraftian numenera (phew, back on familiar territory).

The uses of Intrusions are many:

  • To allow players to reward each other, either to help people catch up, or just to award good play/risks. E.g. Bryce, it was generally agreed, is owed a few cold XPs after Sharad’s heroics.
  • To nudge the story in a particular direction. Because it’s optional, the GM isn’t insisting that the players follow along with a particular course of events, but he/she is offering a little XP if they at least check something out.
  • To resolve questions that don’t have a set answer/would require a bunch of mathhammer to figure out. The example sometimes given is that of a bunch of orcs trying to batter down a door: when do they finally succeed? In D&D et al. there are mechanisms for when that will happen – Orcs have a strength value and the DM can roll every round. Players may have a good idea of how likely it is each round, but when the formula equals +1, down comes the door. In Numenera, the GM isn’t rolling shit, so that door can come down whenever is most dramatically appropriate, if the players accept the XP. Dramatically appropriate may mean that they have to hold off the orcs while they untie their dirigible or whatever, so if they deny the intrusion and leave the Orcs outside, they have a less complicated time hopping on that dirigible, etc. In this kind of situation the offered Intrusion, is really an offer of a more fraught situation. Do you, the players, want to ratchet up the tension?
  • To just shake things up a bit: Make a situation more complicated, make it weirder, make it more dangerous, introduce new actors in a scene, present a new option to players. This is maybe the type that requires the most alertness and storytelling on the part of the GM, because you want it to add something to the storyline, it can’t just be the GM being a dick to the players. If anything, it’s the player who accepts the offer that’s being a dick to the other players. I’m just standing here, offering stuff, not my fault they took it. In small, even inconsequential adversity the players are given a chance to show how their characters would react and therefore flesh out the characters further.

Prepping character specific intrusions is a good idea, but I shouldn’t rely on them, even though I think new possibilities will present themselves as the characters go on. It’d be better to get in the habit of thinking of ways the story could be shaken up a bit on the fly. While playing Pathfinder we used the Pathfinder Plot Twist cards as fate cards (?) I think… it has been a while,.. with people able to play a game mechanic altering twist once in a great while. What we ignored on the cards were the narrative plot twists, but those may be good inspirations to have visible, choosing one that seems like it would fit.

We’ve previously used the white-on-black text, because those were clear Pathfinder mechanics altering twists. But the narrative twists below might be a good crutch if I really can’t think of any on the fly.

Also, I’m cheap and I want to reuse stuff I already own.

Anyway, in this recap I’ll call out the Intrusions (GM and natural-1). Several of them are unresolved, so I won’t say why I did each one and I’ll follow up on that after next week. This is definitely as many Intrusions as I’d like to do – more would be hectic. We’re still playing from The Seedship, so plenty of spoilers ahead because this session was largely by the book.

  • Sharad, an Intelligent Nano who Leads but who also saved everyone while his fingers were glued together.
  • Meef, a Mechanical Jack who Exists Partially Out Of Phase but makes a good boogityboogity distraction.
  • Giana, a Strong-willed Jack who Focuses Mind-Over-Matter but who would rather be out of sight of murderous automatons.
  • Red Pepper, a Graceful Glaive who Wields Two Weapons but who knows discretion is the better part of valour.

After battering a hole in the grid that blocked their access from the mezzanine to the larger hall beyond, they tied off a rope and Red lowered herself down into the dark room beyond. She landed at the bottom on some soggy, spongy plant material and sank into it a little, dark water rising to her ankles. About her, tall white and pale blue stalks rose from the marshy ground, thick trunks that terminated in fronds and fern-like leaves that were turned to no light source. Insect-like creatures whirred around the room’s tall domed ceiling and among the undergrowth and other more substantial creatures scuttled around in the murky waters and sedge, although these were still too small and nimble for Red to catch them.

Slithering gracefully back up the rope and sharing this info, Red fashioned herself some wider shoes from the twisted bands of metal that had been torn from the grid. Then they descended, Giana coming down last, putting her bow away and Hedge Magicking a glowglobe into the air beside her. Sharad figured out that there was solid floor about a foot and a half below them, but it was pretty soggy and they sank three or four inches into the murk. They checked the tree-like plants out; whatever this place was, it was doing fine without sunlight and although they could see the far walls, it really did feel like an overgrown jungle in here.

Giana started weed whacking so that they could move around the room. They decided to cut a path along the wall which took a while, but meant they couldn’t (hopefully) be snuckupupon.

GM Intrusion: Hacking her path with her sword, she hacked a substantial trunk out of the way only to discover in a shower of bright sparks that there was a thick cable pinned to the other side and that it was now sliced in twain. One sparking end sprang back up into the ceiling, recoiling from the tension it had been under, while the other fell toward the soggy bottom of the room. Red’s arm whipped out and she caught the severed tube before it hit the water. They examined the tree that had been used as a support, tacked the cable back to it and then proceeded more carefully, watching out for other cables (which they did find).

Making their way along a new wall, they came to a massive round door apparently covered in ice. That seemed weird for a humid, warm room and on touching it, they found that it wasn’t ice at all, it just really looked like it. There was a central handle that they could turn, so they did. They opened up a lit corridor, smooth and featureless, whose floor ran with rivulets and puddles of a bright orange liquid. The liquid seemed to be pooling a little against the door and it ran into the dark water of the jungle room as they entered the hallway.

At the far end of the hallway stood an 8′ jade-looking pylon. It was made of a partially-translucent green material, and tapered up toward a flat top. Beyond it were three circular doors like the one the had just come through. Sharad proceeded to the pylon, but was about halfway when jets of spouting flame erupted from one of the walls. Sharad stopped, dropped and rolled immediately, avoiding the worst of the jets. The flames went on for a while and then eventually went off, their sources now hidden again.

GM Intrusion: Meef crawled along the floor of the hallway, trying to avoid the jets. The hallway defense system went from dumb to smart and the jets appeared, this time angled down into the passageway, nearly cooking both Sharad and Meef.

Meanwhile, back at the door, they’d noticed that the big heavy circular door would swing shut if left to its own devices. Fearing that they’d be shut in, presumably, they did a bunch of monkeying around with this door: can it be opened again (yes), can it be opened from the other side (yes), is there any state the door could be in that will prevent these flames from shooting out the wall and cooking us (no). On the hall-side of the door, there were symbols on the center of the handle, but no one paid any attention to them whatsoever.

The big solution to the flame jet problem was simply to cheese it down the hallway, since the door area didn’t seem to be subject to the flames. Then they turned their keen and perceptive minds on the pylon. There were no markings, no symbols, no obvious function to it. Sharad scanned it and saw that there was a power source directly below it, but the pylon was just a massive lump of stone: pretty much what it looked like. They tried moving it and it barely budged. Meef threw his shoulder at it…

GM Intrusion: …and passed right through it, uncontrollably phasing out and unfortunately phasing back in a little too early, with his leg still passing out of the stone. The flesh took slivers of the stone with it; a painful, woundless shrapnel.

The three doors were identical, save for one which had scarring which seemed to indicate that something had tried to force it open. Meef decided to phase through it.

Natural 1 Intrusion: Meef trampled the note on the door because he failed his perception check, removing an important detail.

Inside, he found a wrecked room, partially collapsed and filled with debris. It had another door in the back, but he decided to head back out the old fashioned way, opening the door. The door was much harder to open than the hallway door and took all of his strength to pop open. Sharad joined him inside, immediately noticing a piece of paper that Meef had crushed in his blundering around. The paper was coarse and looked like it had been stuck to the door with an edible gum. It was a hand drawn map, with the the words, written in Truth “Vessel?” and “From where?” on either side of the drawing. The drawing showed the areas that the party had explored so far, with two more attached to the big jungle room into which they had not ventured.

Further into the room they found lots of salvageable stuff and quickly nabbed a couple of cyphers. They also found an artifact, a complete and functional molecular bonder.

Natural 1 Intrusion: Sharad picked it up to check it out, accidentally activated it and bonded two of his fingers together into one big, wide, six-knuckled finger.

They then decided to open the central door and found a small, dark room. In the center of the room were some coiled cables and among them, a pile of glassy  blue eggs that gave off their own mild glow. Red picked one up and was instantly overcome by what looked like a seizure. Her mind was flooded with complex and alien information, visions and sensations that made no sense to her at all. Giana (I think) threw herself at her sister, knocking the egg out of her hand. Red snapped out of it, unharmed, but a little disoriented. As they fumbled around with the cables, one came loose (was this a GM Intrusion, I can’t remember) and an egg-thing came with it. Giana ended up touching or being touched by one. However, it didn’t have the same effect on her, she was able to place the glistening, cool glassy object back on the pile no problem. However she was suddenly and inexplicably reminded of  various different household objects from her childhood home; seemingly banal items that she nevertheless remembered distinctly.

GM Intrusion: Sharad tried a Scan of the crystalline eggs, but the esotery did not go as planned. Instead, he felt something scanning him, yet learned nothing else.

The third door was just sitting there begging to be opened, so Meef put his arm to the handle and with a touch of help from Giana, popped it open too. Unfortunately, there was a big metal bastard on the other side. The automaton charged them, massive blades dashing out at terrifying speeds, shields whirling around and catching incoming attacks.

TM and © 2017 Monte Cook Games, LLC. Not sure who the artist is.

Combat started well as Sharad whipped out a cypher, his magnetic auto-drill drone thing and hurled it at the burly automaton. It easily put a shield in front of itself, but the drill attached the the shield and began to burrow quickly, tearing into the metal, destroying the automaton’s right arm up to the shoulder.

After that fighting settled into a rhythm, the explorers would attack and roll like crap for the most part. Then the automaton would attack and they’d roll well. They did hit the thing every once in a while, but its armour was so formidable that they were making small punctures and not much else. Meanwhile, when the automaton eventually hit, he was hitting for 5 points of damage.  Giana activated her Telekinesis and used a screen when she figured out that the automaton was able to anticipate incoming attacks by means of a sensor on its stubby, sunken head.

Natural 1 incursions: Oh, so many. Red had a tomahawk taken by a spinning shield, then knocked the automaton to the ground only to have it knock her to the ground shortly after. Giana managed to sip past the thing and attack it from behind, but then couldn’t flee and it backhanded her to the ground with its shield.

With the combat not going well and headway being made so slowly they’d all be dead by the time they’d whittled this construct down, they general consensus was to get the fuck out of the room and get somewhere else. But Sharad and Giana were both Impaired and Red was headed that way. Giana was stuck on the other side of the room and could not get past the automaton, no matter how she tried and no matter that Meef ran in to run interference for her. He even tried using the molecular bonder to stick the automaton in place but the damn thing wouldn’t stay in one place for long enough.

A good retreat is really difficult to do.

Red split, running back down the hallway, getting roasted by the jets of flame as she went. Sharad backed into the wrecked room where he had found the molecular bonder and frantically made for the exit that they had not yet explored thoroughly.

GM Intrusion: Sharad touched the door and received an unexpected premonition. A hulking creature, with countless lashing pseudopods thrashed around in orange liquid, it’s terrible maw gnashing as it sought prey.

He changed his plan to frantically searching for another cypher that would be useable. He found one! Popping his new found Lightning Projector pill into his mouth and running back to the room where the metal guardian had Giana pinned, he swallowed and hoped for the best (Bryce burned 2XP for a short term benefit, doubling the efficacy of the cypher) and belched out his lightning wall at the automaton, hitting it perfectly, full-on, right down the center of the construct, avoiding Meef and Giana and completely frying their opponent, who toppled over with a crash. Natural 20, fuck you Robot.

Battered and dazed from the fight, they talked about what to do next. Everyone was counting on it including some quality rest time, as most of the party had burned through their quick resting. What was making it difficult to take their time about that was that when red had made it back to the hallway door, she had heard indistinct chatter on the other side, and they know they are not alone in this… whatever it is.