Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Numenera and the History of Plunder

I had a wonderful time at Dragonmeet and in London with the Pelgrinistas. One of the happy discoveries on returning home is that my 13th Age co-designer has a a guest blog ready to roll. Over to Jonathan.

Now that Bruce Cordell’s and Monte Cook’s Kickstarter campaign for The Strange is over, we can once again pay attention to Numenera, Monte’s new RPG about exploring the mind-boggling world of the far future. Numenera is remarkable for, among other things, its emphasis on loot. The game is explicitly about exploring the mysterious world and recovering wondrous artifacts from ages past. Many of these devices are powerful enough to influence the course of a game session or campaign. They’re game-changers. In some ways, this emphasis is a return to original D&D and a reversal of a general trend in RPGs away from loot. 

In original D&D, there was precious little to differentiate one fighting man from another, other than magic items. Fighters had no skills, powers, or tricks, just stats. But loot found in the dungeon made one fighter different from another. An elven cloak made one character invisible, while a necklace of missiles let you throw fireballs. Magic items dropped randomly, based on big percentile tables, so they could be disruptive. The level of a treasure determined the chance it included a magic item but did not influence which random of magic item you found. If a low-level character randomly found a big magic item, it changed the game’s dynamics. The party could now take down monsters that had outclassed them or avoid obstacles that would otherwise have stymied them. Our campaigns were thrown off-balance, but it sure was fun to cut loose with overpowered magic items. 

With 3rd Ed, Monte, Skip, and I rationalized the random tables, categorizing magic items as mundane, minor, medium, and major. The idea was to reduce the disruptive effects of magic items, making loot less of a factor in differentiating characters. Even so, there were plenty of ways for magic items to have a big impact on play, especially anything that let you go invisible, fly, or otherwise substantially change the fundamentals of combat and dungeoneering. In 2007, Fourth ed took normalization even further. Magic weapon abilities, for example, were all made modest enough that each one was less valuable than an additional +1 on attacks would be. A +2 weapon with no ability is better than a +1 weapon with the best ability. That approach ensures that the weapons’ special abilities can’t disrupt game balance. Thirteenth Age follows this logic as well. Outside of the F20 tradition, loot has generally been even less important. My own RPGs (Ars Magica, Over the Edge, and Everway) have little loot to speak of, and you see much the same in Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, Feng Shui, and other significant RPGs. 

An exception that proves the rule was my slim RPG Omega World, a d20 take on Gamma World. I created that game specifically to recapture some of the disruption that had been balanced out of 3rd Ed. Omega World was meant as a change of pace, without the balance necessary to handle campaigns of indefinite length. Random good luck and random bad luck were built into the game’s DNA. Like Gamma World before it, Omega World was about characters with strange powers exploring a mysterious, fallen world, hoping to find powerful artifacts from ages past. Which brings us back to Numenera.

Numenera takes loot to the next level. The very title of the game refers to the unfathomable technology left over from eight past “worlds.” Here, game-changing loot isn’t a problem to be moderated. It’s the core of the game. How do you get over-the-top loot without knocking the campaign off-balance? Monte squares this circle by giving each item limited uses, often one. Using crazy loot is part of the game, but the action doesn’t spiral out of control. Monte has preserved for us something that most RPG designers have left behind—preserved it and advanced it. It’s exciting to see Monte bucking a nearly universal trend and giving players an experience that’s hard to find elsewhere. Numenera successfully advances classic roleplaying tropes in ways other than loot, such as character identity and dungeon crawling, but discussion of those will have to wait for future posts.

--Jonathan Tweet


  1. Interesting. One-use major magic items sound almost like giving the players Whimsy Cards. They aren't stat boosters; they're player-changes-the-plot devices.

  2. I've taken to having the Cypher deck in the center of the table and having players choose a card to see what loot they found. I don't even know what they might pull - keeps the GM on his toes too!

  3. I have used the one use plot changing artifacts on 4e before, thought i am the kind of DM that doesn´t need mechanics for that kind of things, as of now, getting a plot changing "artifact" it´s the goal of the party

  4. This aspect of Numenera just gets more fun as they publish more cyphers and I come up with more of my own.

    Looking forward to the next post on this topic. How about a Kickstarter for a full JT review of Numenera? ��