Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Numenera first pass (halfway) through

Numenera leaves me conflicted. I gave a pass to the kickstarter because Science Fiction isn't really my thing. However once the game hit the street, the buzz was that it was really Science Fantasy (more planescape than star wars) and had several unique and novel play features that sounded intriguing to me. Was going to buy the .pdf, but the local game store owner indicated he had some hardcover copies on order. Unfortunately the hardcover didn't make to the store I had requested them from until November, so I am bit behind the power curve. However, I am doing my best to get through the book, so I can give you a review. No actual play experience, never the less here are my comments based on my read through.

First impressions include gorgeous artwork, well written prose, a sidebar annotation layout which really very helpful. Owners of Monte Cook's previous masterwork Ptolus will recognize these features. The combat and skill system core mechanic is straight forward, roll a d20 try to beat a target number. I thought the idea of being able to spend effort to lower the target number was intriguing. The character creation system at first glance seems very free form and open. One starts one character by filling in the statement "I am an adjective noun who verbs". So far very good, similar to my favorite character generation system from Over the Edge (Pick three things your good at, one weakness, and one secret).

However, pursual of the subsequent chapters on characters begin the to reveal the dark secret lurking beneath the surface. It turns out there are only three permissible nouns: Glaive, Nano, or Jack (by the way, Monte, use of glaive in this fashion is almost as heinous as the movie's Krulls use of glaive to describe a six pointed psychic shuirekan. True polearmists know that a glaive is a long knife on a stick). There are only twelve permissible adjectives:  Charming, Clever, Graceful, Intelligent, Learned, Mystical/Mechanical (yea, I though that would be two different things but it is only one), Rugged, Stealthy, Strong, Strong willed, Swift, Tough.There are twenty verbs (which I won't bother to list) however no two members of the party are allowed to have the same verb. In balance the character creation is closer to 4e character class, theme than Over the edges free form.

Also surfacing in the character creation chapters is another concern for me, the system is a tri-stat system having only might, speed, and intellect. While tri-stat systems are not completely fatal (I have been playing Ultima Online for years, Skyrim is a more recent example), I find most of them have trouble dividing mechanics between only three stats so that one does not become significantly more important than others. Another source of trouble begins to appear in the equipment section, fixed weapon damage versus fixed armor class. Again a system which requires careful balance, it does look like it is reasonably under control, since both medium, and heavy weapons can get through heavy armor, but armor bonuses will quickly make a character vulnerable only to critical hits (this reliance on requiring critical hits to penetrate armor is what soured me on first edition Runequest).

Now we reach the chapter on rules of the game. I found this chapter the most difficult to read. Monte's narrative style is ill suited  to something that could be be explained "Old school" with a chart or table. He spends seven paragraphs explaining to make an attack you roll a d20 add or subtract the appropriate modifiers and compare it to the target number. He explains the mechanics of much of the standard stuff on climbing, healing, jumping etc. I like the guarding action which similar to a readied action in D&D but with a bit more flexibility. The defense roll instead of  the DM making an attack roll is kind of cute (However I like rolling dice as a DM). Unfortunately these next items is where it all falls apart. He makes the same mistake that soured me on the "The Fantasy Trip" more than 20 years ago, both  your initiative and chance to hit are based on speed. In the "The Fantasy Trip" this made speed archer the only viable character class. Oh sure you could try playing an armored fighter or spell caster, but you were going to get filled full arrows before you could do anything. Numenera does allow you to use might instead of speed for melee, so there is some hope for fighters. However,  Numenera compounds this with another couple errors. First as you take damage your ability fight back decreases, making hitting first even more important. Second all the fancy maneuvers such as "effort"  and "nano" are drawing from the same pool you are using for hit points. This results in making comeback options from a poor start close out real fast. Since I favor a "Heroic" style of play where players are are taking long shots to comeback from seeming overwhelming odds, I am putting the book down and slowly backing away. I had hoped for better, from the author of the books of Eldritch Might, one of my favorite 3.5e expantions. Many people do enjoy playing games with as badly flawed mechanics (Tunnels and Trolls, The Fantasy Trip, GURPS, [Champions had a slight different flaw with speed, but if you build a slow character you would never do anything but watch the speedy players mop the board]), but it is not my cup-of-tea. I may pick up the book again to pursue the campaign setting chapters and magic items (cyphers seem an interesting idea for one shot items), but right now I will leave it there.

P.S. I have not investigated this thoroughly, but it appears there are only six levels for each character class as well. C'mon Monte in this age of 80th level characters in on-line games, what were you thinking.

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