Numenera XP and character development

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Numenera’s system, (before they release Numenera 2, next summer), just because in many ways it is substantively different to anything I’ve played before. There’s probably going to be a few posts about me just writing my way through my understanding of how it all works.

One thing that grabbed me is the Experience and Tier system. It isn’t unique, mostly, there are other games that do similar things but the uses for the XP that the characters get in game is new to me and probably, most of our group.

Briefly, XP is doled out four different ways:

  • You can suffer an offered GM Intrusion, which sounds bad, no matter how I phrase it. The GM offers to make things a little harder/more interesting/spicy/complex for your character. You can turn it down (see below) or you can accept the intrusion and the GM will hand you two XP, one of which you get to keep.
  • You can be the lucky SOB who gets handed a XP card by someone who just suffered an Intrusion. Maybe you brought snacks, maybe you did some excellent roleplaying earlier and your fellow player wants to reward you, maybe you are obviously lagging behind everyone in XP and your plight elicits sympathy. Maybe they’re buttering you up so that you help them out of a predicament. No idea, but you lucked out.
  • A major and majorly-difficult-to-wrap-my-head-around concept that deviates from anything I think I’ve ever played is that players can set their own goals. Avenge my murdered father. Become King. Elope with my sworn enemy’s smoking hot son/daughter. Something big like that is likely to drive a character from creation onwards. For some players this is going to come naturally. Rolland, for example, always seems able to quickly set up a simple, relatable backstory for his D&D characters and this informs what they do from the get-go. Others get rolling and figure out where the game takes them. Both ways are perfectly good ways of playing – Numenera does lots to reward the second type of player – so it’s nice to see the first type of player get some love too.
  • Rewards for discovery. XP can be handed out when you discover something… that I decide is a discovery. Artifact discoveries dish out XP based on the power of the artifact.  But hell, if I decide that an important discovery was that the real exploration was the exploration of  friendship, I could award that too.

That last way of gaining XP branches off from the more typical XP-for-overcoming-an-obstacle-of-some-sort which is the direct descendent of XP-for-murdering-monsters. But at its heart Numenera is a game about exploring: exploring this big crazy world full of old things and new things and weird mixes of the two. You might be a Glaive/Jack/Nano, but you are a Glaive/Jack/Nano that is going to be doing a fair amount of exploring. I like that idea, but it’s going to take me a while as a GM to figure out how to refocus on discovery being the end goal of the game.

It isn’t taking down a villain (although you may do that), it isn’t about stopping a plot (although you may do that), it isn’t even about survival (although players should try to do that). And these are the things that usually form the meat of scenarios I’ve run in the past and certainly if I write scenarios, that’s where I start. I use the word ‘meat’ because that’s how I plan meals too: which meat am I going to have, then which starch would go well with it, then which vegetables would go well with that. So when someone serves me a vegetarian meal with vegetables at the forefront and I really like it, I’m always impressed… but I can’t easily start thinking about meals that way. I’m still a meat-first guy.

Through long practice with fantasy RPGs, I’m a conflict-first guy too. If I start thinking of an encounter, I generally start off with the combat. Who will they be fighting? Then why, then where, then how will they get to that point. Re-calibrating to think of discovery as the end goal will take a bit.

Anyway… you get XP. So now you can spend that XP in a bunch of ways as well:

Immediate benefit: You can spend an XP to reroll a d20 result that you didn’t like. Also, You can spend an XP to refuse a GM Intrusion that’s offered to you. If at all possible, I think that should be played out, because it’s something that the player is making happen. So if a mutant tribesman is attacking and I offer the GM Intrusion that he initiates an anti-gravity field, so you’d have to finish this fight floating in air, a player could decide that they don’t want that to happen – they’re one day from retirement – slide me an XP and say that they see the mutant try to activate the device, decide it’s going to be bad and punt it out of the mutant’s non-specific appendages. The device activates harmessly, 60′ away. And I’m fine with the player deciding how that Intrusion gets denied, because they spent the XP.

Short Term Benefits: For modest xp cost a player can become skilled at something in a very specific way, so specific, that the skill doesn’t translate beyond their current environs/situation. So if I say that the trap mechanism dumps you into an underground-river cave system a player could cough up the a few and declare that actually, when they were a kid there were river caves near where they grew up just like these and she spent many a happy hour navigating them with friends. This neither gives the character the Swimming skill, nor Spelunking, nor Navigation but it does mean that for the purpose of making their way through these watery caves, they count as trained. Are they ever going to use it again? Possibly not, maybe it’s so specific that it’ll never come up again. but from now on, that little bit of the character’s past is revealed and hopefully that says something about them.

The risk, of course is that this will prove to be a Get Out Of Jail Free card and some story-pivotal inability will get waved away. I doubt it though. A loss of  XP ain’t nothin to fuck with. That’s probably most of the XP a player would collect in a session – a 5XP session would be unusual, I think.

Long Term Benefits: For  very slightly more XP, a character can take something from their past or the game events and make them much more long term benefits. If you do a job for Mr Johnson, someone spends  XP and can describe how Mr Johnson becomes a trusted and reliable contact, fencing goods, making arrangements, and sending good jobs their way. You save the town of Charming-on-Bumblefuck from bio-mechanical clowns and by spending  XP you can parlay that into gaining a house in that quaint hamlet. So sure, this is like the Short Term story-based benefit, but more so, although again it costs, but more so.

Character Advancement: Permanent until death, at least. There are (kinda) four permanent benefits that you can buy with a bundle of 4XP – increasing your stat pools, add Edge, increasing Effort, and get trained in a skill. All these things make it easier to pass checks and fire off abilities. You can also do a few more things, like pick up another class ability, get better at wearing armour and get better at self-healing.

Once you’ve done 4 of these Permanent things (you can only do them once per tier) you go up a Tier. There are only 6 tiers in the game, so if you redlined it, it would take 80xp to hit the top tier. When you go up a Tier, you get new abilities from your character type and your Focus, i.e. the last two parts of your character description sentence. Glaives get Glaivier, Nanos get Nanoier and Jacks get Jackier. But those Who Wear A Sheen Of Ice get… Icier, and able to prevent and cause damage with ice.

Again, this is a whole new world of XP use to me and it’s the utility part of it that I find so interesting. Rather than boxes to be ticked, or a well to be filled with pebbles, XP becomes a currency to spend and thus its own little game. Do you invest cautiously, do you splash it around? Can you tell when is a time to spend and when is a time to save? Starting characters in Numenera are already powerful and capable, there isn’t the same mad rush to apply levels of accrued experience like layers of turtle shell and this keep your character alive. Choices will kill you in Numenera, not just mismatching of power.

I’ll be interested to see how much XP gets tossed around the table, and how much is hoarded.