The Plotbound GM

There’s something I’ve heard being talked about here and there every so often among the tabletop gamers I know – a particular kind of GM who doesn’t overtly railroad the players, but who you can tell has a Grand Plot that they’re playing out with the PCs cast as the protagonists. I’ve even run into some of the breed, although I’ve never had to deal with being on the other side of the screen from one.

They’re the GMs who want to showcase their masterpiece story to people, with all the amazing worldbuilding and intricate details, the complex intrigues and national rivalries, and the players are who they intend to showcase it to. In effect, they’ve got a book and the PCs get the phenomenal good fortune, in the GM’s opinion, of being the starring characters in it. (Unless they’re bad enough GMs that they have a GMPC protagonist and the PCs are the character’s sidekicks, but one nightmare at a time for now.)

I can understand where these people are coming from; they’ve put all this effort and love into building a world and a plot, and they want to show it off. They’ve probably considered writing it as a novel, but either they worry that their writing sucks or they’ve internalized the false logic that writers are socially unacceptable weirdos. Thus, there’s only one outlet left for their work.

And that is where everything goes wrong. Players can tell when the road they’re on doesn’t fork or split anywhere, and when their characters are only tangentially connected to the world or the plot. This leads to player detachment and boredom, since they quickly get the feeling that nothing they do has any impact on the course of events. Mos will simply check out and either quit showing up or simply ignore the game when it isn’t their turn.

That, in turn, frustrates the GM, since their brilliantly concocted masterpiece is being ignored and left unappreciated by the players. Some get bitter and conclude that players are all just mechanics-hounds and combat-monkeys with no interest in a True Story; some get upset and quit running the game to look for another group, hoping that they’ll eventually find one who can appreciate their creation.

The solution isn’t something these GMs want to hear: this brilliant story and deeply developed world? If having to told really matters that much to you, you’re going to have to commit to the lengthy, arduous labor of writing it as an actual story. The players will never play through it and applaud your ideas, because the odds are that what you think is brilliant and original has half-calcified lumps of trope and stereotype clinging to it.

If you want to showcase your world, invite the players in. Acknowledge that they’re going to change things. Accept it, and learn to work with it. Give your players the opportunity to put their characters into the world and become an actual part of it, tie their stories into a plot that directly involves them, and you’ll find the audience you’ve been looking for. Acknowledge that it isn’t going to be just your world any longer; your players will sculpt bits of it themselves.

It’ll be worth it. No matter how thorough you are, there are things you won’t have written, and things where the voice you have falters in dealing with. Letting others come play in the world you’ve made will shore up these weak points and absences, give you an opportunity to make the world more complete and more alive. Take the things your players offer and include them; your players will appreciate it, and they’ll be invested in the world in turn because now part of it is theirs, too.

If you can’t do that, well… Perhaps it’s time to sit down and write that book.

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The Plotbound GM

Kingmaker: Alternatives

A few posts back I looked at how I might go about running a kingdom-building campaign in the Numenera system and setting. Today, I’ll be examining a couple of alternative frameworks for this campaign concept. Along with the overview of each given framework, I’ll list what I see as the given pros and cons for each of them.

Framework One: This is the one described in the previous post; the players are given a reason to go found a new settlement by someone in authority, and charged with both clearing the land of dangers and selecting the site of the new settlement. As frameworks go, this one is something of a catch-all, with the early stages being traditional exploration and adventure, while the latter stages involve political intrigue, military matters, and civic challenges.

The pros of this framework: The players have the freedom to set up their town-to-be wherever and however they like, no overarching plot hems in their plans, and challenges can be easily arranged to suit whatever they’ve gotten up to at any given time. For groups with players who like to take charge and forge their own path, this is an excellent campaign model.

The cons of this framework: The players have a sandbox, which most groups tend to find a bit daunting and overwhelming without hints and clues to a plot being dropped around them. Likewise, they may get sidetracked in the exploration and discovery phase, and may end up neglecting the kingdom part of things in favor of going spelunking or chasing what they’re sure is a plot hook. Not recommended for groups that are unlikely to show initiative.

Framework Two: This one takes the players and drops them into a situation where they’re the most-qualified people to lead a group that otherwise has been and will continue to fumble along. A shipwreck that casts the players ashore near a small settlement huddled in the ruins of a prior-world structure, barely surviving as they fend off bandits, wildlife, and other dangers is an example of this framework. It limits the total control of the players, since there’s already a base location, and it makes things more traditionally adventure-oriented than the first framework.

The pros of this framework: Players who don’t do well without being offered direction can do well in this, as there’s a clear goal – defend the encampment, shore it up, help it prosper. It comes with a pre-defined base of operations to work from and can have a plot seeded in to help players decide where to explore.

The cons of this framework: Many players won’t appreciate the baby-sitting role this requires for the early stage, and they may want to uproot the settlement to a ‘better’ location if they decide they’ve found one. The nature of the scenario means that many of the later aspects of kingdom-building will be missing, unless you carefully inject them to make them more viable; political intrigue is unlikely with a settlement of exiles and refugees, for example.

Framework Three: The players are given a specific site to settle by the people who have given them leave to found a new settlement, because the location has a rare resource to be exploited. While this doesn’t leave much to the early exploration phase other than finding the best spot in the immediate vicinity of the resource to start the settlement, it does leave things open to player development and immediately includes hooks for intrigue and politics.

The pros of this framework: Players who enjoy planning and developing can get right to it, it still involves exploration and discovery, and the players who enjoy solid RP will feel right at home. Adventure and exploration happen when the mines break into hollow spaces that may hold dangers of the deep past, or when outside forces move to try to conquer the settlement and claim the resource for themselves.

The cons of this framework: Players who chafe at authority aren’t going to be happy with this framework, since they’re essentially just lords appointed by the local authority to administer the area. Likewise, it cuts out much of the initial exploration of the world, and can use a significant dosage of the Weird to make it feel different from generic fantasy games.

Framework Four: In this one, players are less explorers and settler and more rebels; they’re the founders of a rebellion or revolution in the Steadfast itself, people fed up with the rulers or perhaps with the Amber Papacy. The settlement would begin as less a town and more a bolthole and staging ground for the rebel forces, growing over time as they begin to claim ground and win victories until they hold an actual nation carved out of the existing lands of the steadfast.

Pros of this framework: Most players will find something to enjoy in this framework; combat-oriented players can find ample excuses to get in the thick of things and bloody some noses. Planners and tacticians can design the bolthole, eventual fortress, and the battle plans for the rebellion. Intrigue-oriented people can look to get allies for the cause, talk loyalist forces into defecting, and eventually be the public face of a new country when the other nations demand that differences be settled.

Cons of this framework: It’s a lot of work for the GM, moreso than any of the other frameworks, and a careful balance has to be kept among player types and with the plot to keep people from getting bored or feeling that the story is getting contrived and overly simplified. Not recommended unless the GM has ample free time to work on it.

Framework Five: The last framework under consideration is the one of wholesale conversion. Several other game systems have campaigns and adventures built around this concept, with a pre-built plot and much of the necessary materials ready to be used. Given how easy conversion into the Numenera system is, the GM’s workload is fairly minimal, and as long as the players are on board with the plot things should flow smoothly.

Pros of this framework: The work is done on all the hard parts, and there’s a ready-made plot that just needs to be converted to fit the system and setting. Thanks to the system, the mechanical conversions are quite simple, and any relatively creative GM should be able to make flavor conversions. You can pick something to convert that you know should appeal to the players, and go from there.

Cons of this framework: If the players are familiar with the campaign already or if they know the world, the GM will need to slap on an extra-thick layer of the Weird to keep it from showing through. The plot isn’t going to be flexible to the characters, and it can show if the group decides to zig with some numenera trinket when the original plot assumes they’re a standard fantasy group who have to zag because zigging isn’t an option.

There are other models to work from, but these are the five primary ones I’ve come across; whether the pros outweigh the cons will depend on your specific group. Still, either way, any of these frameworks can provide a satisfying campaign for the entire group if everyone is up for it.

Kingmaker: Alternatives

Artifacts of the Amethyst Hills

In preparation for an upcoming Numenera campaign set to run alternate weeks from the Eclipse Phase game, I’ll be developing a few things here on the blog. The players have expressed interest in the idea of having to settle and build up an aldeia of their own, so I’ll be assembling things related to that. Today, it’ll be the stationary artifacts and/or remnant effects of the prior worlds that settlements can be built around.

The first is a structure almost completely buried in the hillside, with only a trio of slender metal rods jutting out of the dark earth and a slow fluctuation in the gravity around the hill. The artifact is a level 5 singularity projector, which, if cleared and modified by someone trained in dealing with the numenera, is capable of projecting an unstable microscopic black hole up to 10 kilometers from the device, where it detonates and inflicts 50 point of radiation damage to everything in long range. It takes an hour to recharge, and can only be fired 5 times per day.

Second is a structure of blue metal and reflective synth that rises up out of a shallow pond; clear water cascades from thin air at the upper edge of the structure, splashing down in the pool in an endless fountain. Anyone who drinks from the pond or bathes in the water has a +1 on all Recovery rolls for the next 28 hours. The fountain counts as a level 6 artifact.

Third is a complex of free-floating rings, slowly spinning in place with an eerie hum. The rings themselves are interesting, but not important; growing on them is a golden fungus, which drinks in the strange energies of the device and converts them into more of the dense, nutritious fungus. If given more space to grow on, the fungus can potentially provide food for a modest-sized aldeia, or feed a modest military force in the field. Unfortunately, it tastes incredibly bland to human senses. This counts as a level 5 artifact.

Fourth is a deposit of synth, buried under the violet dirt of the eastern hills, which is slightly self-luminous and lightweight without sacrificing any strength. It can be mined from a variety of purposes, from utilitarian light sources to lightweight and durable weapons and armor. Additionally, ultraterrestrials take a point of damage from contact with it, as it leeches their otherworldly energy and converts it into light. The deposit counts as a level 4 artifact.

Fifth is a broken hexagonal structure that still hums with power despite the damage visible. It can be scavenged, and the area around it carefully mined, to produce a few cyphers per week, mostly in the form of detonation and shielding devices. Occasionally, the structure produces strange emanations that can provoke a powerful sense of unease in living creatures near it. It counts as a level 4 artifact.

Sixth is an area with a soft, almost subsonic hum that quickly gets tuned out by most people (Difficulty 1 Intellect check) and a small synth disc. Stepping on the disc causes the world to bend strangely before finding oneself standing at the edge of a massive synth platform nearly three kilometers across, with an ancient city rising from it. Once cleared out, the site is ideal to move diretly into, although the nature of the spatial warp makes bringing goods in or out difficult. The site counts as a Level 6 artifact.

Lastly, the seventh artifact is a tree of strange metal that grows bands of synth that can be wrapped around the wrist (1d6-1 such bands per week). Each such band is a one-use cypher that can teleport the wearer back to the base of the tree, although the transfer seems somewhat inimical to human life, moving users one step down the damage track. The bands work up to 100 kilometers away for each level of the cypher (1d6+1), and the tree itself is a Level 5 artifact.

Each of these sites has additional uses; the first could be tapped to recharge other artifacts at a cost of reducing the power or frequency of the singularity projections, the third could have the outermost ring’s kinetic energy tapped to drive any number of devices, and the fifth might be able to be repaired enough to provide power for a settlement.

Next time we visit, I’ll take a look at the terrain of the Amethyst Hills, and the challenges inherent to trying to settle the unsettled lands of the Ninth World.

Artifacts of the Amethyst Hills

Eclipse Phase, Session One

On Friday night, once both characters were finalized, the first session of the Eclipse Phase game got underway; it started with me listing off suggestions of things that the would-be Reality XP Stars might want to consider for their first show and first effort at gathering fame in Venusian space. Among the ideas listed were ‘skydiving’ from the axis of rotation – either during a competition or out of the blue – using a rocket boost to essentially jump across the habitat with intent to land on the same building on the other side of the rotation, jousting while riding drones in space outside the habitat, and exploring one of the habitats recently declared to be scuttled by the hypercorps.

Among those options, they selected the most dangerous one: go poke around an abandoned and off-limits research habitat. A little research on orbital paths got them telemetry for three small habs – one owned by Cognite, one owned by Somatek, and one owned by Skinthetic. Or, in more direct terms, one owned by mind-hackers, one owned by uplift specialists, and one owned by morph designers. They decided to go for the Cognite habitat.

Getting out without revealing their purpose was fairly easy; Roth, the octomorph shock jock, brazened his way out with a fantastic degree of success, enough to keep the local control off their back as they wandered across the hull, making sure to cross hab windows so that people would start speculating as to what these two idiots were up to. At the appointed time, and with a bit of extra fanfare, they launched into space to make a rendezvous with the abandoned habitat.

Roth had no trouble with the trip, spending the time in the void smoothly gliding along as he took in panoramic shots of Venus. Sveta, on the other hand, had a little difficulty at first and had to make a few course corrections with her thruster pack to bring her in a little roughly on the side of the torus. Oddly, given the rotational gravity, the hab had an airlock on the outer of the two rings.

They gained access through Sveta’s infosec skills and a few tweaks to the circuitry of the airlock, cycling into an unusually cool and quiet hab, half the lighting shut off with the other half dimmed into low-power emergency mode. Roth’s enthusiasm only flared up higher, as he kept talking about how easy it would be to give the production a ‘Blair Witch’ kind of vibe with the spooky lighting, while Sveta started having an unpleasantly familiar sensation crawl up her spine.

Pushing into the habitat proper, the first area they hit was the common room/dining hall, which had windows set in the floor; Roth climbed to the roof using his octopus skills and control jets, feeding the visual to Sveta. She, while Roth was enthralled with the view of Venus sweeping past and his own stylish reflection in the windows, realized something was amiss.

All the food trays were sitting around as if everyone had been mid-meal and no one had gathered them up; but even allowing for two weeks of sitting out and station controls, the trays themselves were conspicuously clean.The uncomfortable sensation crawled a bit farther up her back, prompting a Sanity check that she blew. Luckily, it was only a little stressful to observe. There was certainly some rational explanation right?

Along they went; crew quarters, all clearly vacated in a hurry. Personal effects strewn around, and Roth finds one person’s stash of vintage porn from before the days of the Fall, which he happily tucks away for resale. Sveta digs around on the local mesh, finding several devices connected, including one containing the video/XP diary of one Stephanie Danz.

The clip opens with Stephanie staring in a mirror. Her eyes are hugely dilated, her heart rate is up, she’s sweating and breathing hard. “We have to evacuate. The experiment’s gone wrong. We have to get out before it-” She cuts off as a crinkling sound comes from behind her, whips around, and nearly collapses from relief when it’s one of her coworkers, motioning her to hurry up.

Roth feels a very subtle vibration in the habitat at this point, but doesn’t bother commenting on it. They copy the XP and move on, passing to the ‘public’ server room and command center, where Sveta gets access to get a proper map of the habitat. The rest of the outer ring is marked as a Green Zone – restricted access in case anyone from outside Cognite comes visiting. The inner ring is split up -the four spokes that go from the outer ring to the central spindle pass through the two Yellow Zones, areas restricted to researchers from the facility and higher-up Cognite executives.

And then there’s the two Red Zones, isolated from the spokes. One labelled ASI, which does nothing to calm Sveta down. The other is EWM, which means nothing to either of them.

Roth cracks the door into the Green Zone open just as Sveta queues up all the camera feeds, nearly giving her a heart attack as she sees the door open on a feed, followed by the octopus popping through. At his request, his muse digs around the available info on the server and Sveta pushes for access to the other Zones’ cameras.

Roth’s muse, Jeeves, informs him (in a stuffy stereotypically British Butler fashion) that the accounting on the system is completely awry, with large amounts of materials and funds disappearing. He blows it off on the assumption that a higher-up has been living it up on the company credit.

Sveta, on the other hand, gets access to the Yellow Zone cameras, and finds corpses. The closer Zone has a few bodies split open and left to rot, with a synthmorph slowly rocking in one corner. The octopus jets off to check on the synthmorph and gets Sveta to lend him a hand while she tries to ping the synth’s muse, and pulls the synth up on habitat logs as one Sylvester Dal, a cognition engineering specialist.

The synth responds when Roth spams it with the name, while Sveta’s ping of the muse prompts a half-destroyed forest sprite with a thousand-mile stare to show up, hovering on Roth’s AR at the synth’s shoulder. Before anything else happens, Roth pops the synth’s stack and powers it down, then fishes through the gore of the biomorphs to pick up a couple more stacks – including one that, improbably, had been snapped in half by some unthinkably large amount of pressure.

Meanwhile, Sveta’s trying to get some sense from the Red Zone cameras, which are throwing errors and feedback sprays.

ERROR

ERROR

ERROR

sparking flash of half a frame (something sort of visible)

ERROR

ERROR

BRIGHTFEEDBACKFLASH

ERROR

half-frame glimpse; something humanoid?

ERROR

Roth drops back down, maybe starting to feel a bit unsettled by the carnage and the broken stack in a pocket of his vacsuit; he’s suited back up at Sveta’s nudging. Her camera drones get sent up, surveying the disaster and then going through the door into the EWM Red Zone. It’s clean, amazingly so. A couple healing vats sitting to one side, a massive airgapped quantum computer on the other; Sveta recognizes it from her old job as the kind of thing countries go into debt to acquire. She carefully doesn’t mention this to Roth, and leapfrogs the drones onward; they can’t make it through the door into the other Red Zone, and get called back to try the other side, with one left in the EWM area.

She closes the bulkheads in the spokes, while she’s doing this.

The habitat vibrates subtly, and there’s no discernible source; the vibration’s a lot worse at the inner ring. No matter, push on, that’s Roth’s method here. What looked like corpses at first glance prove to be all the food that should have been moldering on the trays in the common area, in this part of the Yellow Zone. Why’s it up there? Who knows?

Sveta’s ready to fake a failure at the other Red Zone door – but it opens without her prompt, revealing the kind of server system that uses liquid nitrogen for cooling purposes. Sveta, at this point, needs to see nothing else; the station was being used for Seed AI research, and she wants off. There’s an escape pod left, after all.

Roth insists on her waiting; he wants to go check out the airgapped system, and the bulkheads in the closest spoke retract – clear up to the spindle, with blinking green evacuation system lights blinking next to them. Only…

…Well.

Sveta didn’t do that. Roth doesn’t take the time to question it, launching himself up the shaft and heading for the EWM red zone – with the Yellow door shrieking shut behind him, and refusing to respond to Sveta’s efforts to get it back open. Sveta’s taking the time to transmit the contents of the station mesh – the parts that aren’t reporting that they’re experiencing an unsourced 95% load – to a secure location off-station. It’s as much to keep herself calm as to get a backup of what went wrong if they suddenly die.

The EWM zone, seen through Roth’s eyes, proves to be quite a bit different than the drone’s view. The healing vats have some murky green liquid filling them, rather than the usual translucent goo, there’s a medical table with a morph strapped down on it that apparently died in agony, and the server has – to him – some looming presence to it.

Roth goes to interface with it at the same time that Sveta picks up another anomalous vibration event; his brain starts feeling like it’s vibrating and buzzing, but he can’t find anything on the quantum server and pulls out, pushing down the corridor with Sveta’s drone in tow.

The door to the spoke obligingly opens, then gusts of pressurized air blast drone and octopus both down the shaft before the bulkheads all slam shut behind him. Taking it as a cue, the two of them meet at the open spoke and hurriedly climb up, emerging into the spindle – completely dark, other than the blinking green lights of the escape pod. They don’t dare risk turning on suit lights, and push across the space toward the pod.

Sveta’s still half-watching the cameras and gets a split-second frame from the EWM cameras of a close-up of an eye, staring straight into the camera from point-blank range.

Something slaps against Roth’s suit and bounces away, startling him but not doing much else; the pod obligingly opens as they arrive and launches itself, a course already programmed in to take them back to Gerlach.

Sveta, still hooked into the mesh as they blast away, gets another snapshot – this a full frame, nearly a full second in length, of an impossibly detailed eyes looking into the camera.

Roth hasn’t seen either eye, and agrees that they’re on the creepy side when she shows him, but he’s busy recording their departure when the station, unexpectedly, explodes in a fusion fireball, sending a good 95% of the debris in a burning arc toward Venus – but a few pieces are boosted up into a larger orbit.

They return to Gerlach without any real incident beyond some harassment about their stunt; no one seems to be interested in connecting them or the escape pod to the habitat that just exploded. They decide to work out what to do with the material they collected after getting some sleep and perhaps a little muse-delivered psychotherapy.

And that wrapped up the first session of the campaign, which was a bit wilder and a bit darker than expected for a first session.

And it certainly sets up some questions for them to poke at in future sessions.

Eclipse Phase, Session One

Numenera: The Orbital Ring

So today, I’m going to talk about a small bit of the Numenera setting, and where I think the writers of the Into the Night supplement missed an opportunity, perhaps intentionally. There is, as far as we know, only one Beanstalk – a space elevator created at some point in the prior worlds which manipulates gravity to keep itself in place as much as by any tensile strength of the Beanstalk itself. By the baseline canon, taking an elevator to the orbital end places one in a space station in geosynchronous orbit, no doubt having gradually changed its position as the Earth slowly braked to the 28-hour day of the Ninth World.

What I personally feel that they missed here was a chance to include an orbital ring – a torus habitat the size of the geosynchronous orbit, under immense strain from the shifts of the Earth, between the continental drift and the slowing rotation. The advanced materials of the lost civilization have kept it from tearing completely apart, but signs of the strain are evident – some sections have buckled or fractured, allowing the air to seep out, immense window panes have crazed as the panes holding them deform slowly, and the entire structure groans and creaks as the tidal forces on it keep shifting well beyond the bounds it was created to handle.

Why have such a thing in the Ninth World, rather than a simple geosynchronous station? Aside from the sheer area involved, it provides everything you could want from a space-side Numenera “dungeon crawl” situation. Structural damage, radiation seepage, areas with malfunctioning gravity generation or reliance on centripetal force for gravity, creatures evolved to survive in the strange environments available, and ample space for all kinds of encounters make such a ring a fantastic mini-world to adventure in and explore.

Perhaps the top of the Beanstalk is home to an entire thriving settlement of humans and other sapient creatures now adapted to life in the ring; it makes an ideal base of operations for enterprising players, particularly since the numenera of the ring are absolutely vital to making sure the settlement remains habitable, with clean air and potable water. Areas nearby are unlikely to be too dangerous, with patrols to keep the dangerous lifeforms and hostile automatons out, and ample warning of dangerous areas.

Farther out, the ring becomes a wild place, with entire strange ecosystems flourishing in places where the environmental controls have gone haywire, leading to zero-gravity jungles of alien-seeming life, teeming with predators superbly adapted to the conditions. Other areas, flooded when systems broke down, have created strange null-gravity lakes full of amorphous life and strange biological cyphers.

Traps exist, in the form of malfunctioning systems and deliberate creations of the more sapient inhabitants of the ring, and these can guard treasure troves of cyphers and artifacts. Some areas are the private fiefdoms of creatures that have painstakingly built a home, and who are unlikely to be happy to have visitors. Some areas might be on the verge of breaking down, offering GM Intrusions when the players do something to push an overloaded system just a little too far; sprays of crackling electrical energy, shielding collapsing to reveal the radioactive heart of machinery, or pressure walls blowing out are all dangers the PCs face.

Other rewards can be found; just as the first Amber Pope found an ancient machine mind when he teleported to an orbital fortress, the AIs that once watched over the ring can either still be functional, working desperately to keep their sections functional in spite of the entropy, completely mad after the errors in their software compounded too far, or dormant, waiting to be awakened by the curious probing of explorers. The wealth of information and hoarded resources such beings could bestow on the characters as rewards (or be found when dealt with) is nothing to be sneezed at.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for a Numenera game, almost everything about the ring can be considered a Discovery worthy of reward once found and understood. Exploring one of the greatest high-tech dungeons a planetary civilization could craft is certain to be rewarding, exciting, and perhaps even lead to a retirement as a wealthy and powerful individual blessed with the prizes of the ancients.

Numenera: The Orbital Ring

Numenera Framework: Kingmaker

A few months ago over at The Ninth World, an article was posted about three frameworks for starting a campaign in the Numenera setting. One of them in particular caught my eye: the idea of a campaign built around that time-honored trope from fantasy games, where the players set up a base of operations and go about trying to make their own kingdom (sneakily or not, depending on the group and circumstances). I find this particularly appealing with Numenera, since there’s no need to try to build a detailed system to represent the base of operations, the towns, the kingdom, or any military forces that might arise. It can all be handily abstracted via the level system at the core of the game, leaving players and GMs alike free to focus on the tasks involved and the story to be told.

Carving out a kingdom from the untamed wilderness is a popular theme for fantasy campaigns, and there’s no reason you can’t scratch your sandbox kingdom-building itch in the Ninth World. Have a ruler from The Steadfast grant the PCs a parcel of land near one of the unassigned markers from the setting maps. Then come up with a stationary bit of useful numenera to act as the anchor point for the city.

I like this idea quite a bit, but there are a couple things I’d adjust. One is that the PCs don’t necessarily need a land grant from a ruler; the Ninth World is huge and unexplored. Just outside the borders of the Steadfast, or even inside it, are areas still untamed and wild where a town can crop up if something valuable is found. The players might also found a settlement by accident – if one of them is an Aeon Priest, or if they work for one, there’s a chance that people might hear about it and journey to benefit from their wisdom and expertise.

Additionally, I wouldn’t just pick one stationary bit of numenera in the area; seed in three to six, all of them far enough apart that one town can’t control them all, and let the players find them and choose which one they want to found their town around. Some examples might be a synth tree that grows fruit of useful metal, a fountain whose waters invigorate those who drink them regularly, a device that can project a powerful defensive barrier out far enough to protect a modest-sized town, a quirk of physics that produces a fold in space to hide a town inside, and an ancient weapon emplacement that can be reactivated and used to defend the town. Each of these can count as a Discovery, so that even the ones players don’t choose to settle at provide them with a reward.

Your job as GM will be to fill dozens of miles of surrounding wilderness with indigenous creatures, bizarre topography, raw resources to gather, and lost structures to explore. Then cut the PCs loose to live and die by their wits. The most important thing to do is to have your factions and phenomena react in ways that make sense for their motivations. If you’re doing it right, the PCs will treat each encounter with care for what they know in the fiction, rather than just as a new element to exploit for game advantages.

An important thing here is the bit about factions and phenomena. More than anything else in a nation-building campaign, the GM will need to invest the time and energy to include several faction at work. Some of this will depend on the players and how they set up their town; for example, are they friendly or hostile towards mutants? If they’re hostile, all the mutants in their new region will be suspicious and probably be looking to bring them down. If they’re friendly, well, the Angulan Knights will likely have something to say about it. The same question goes for many of the strange groups of sapients in the Ninth World. Cyborgs, automatons, visitants, and so on are all going to react to the stance of the players on their existence.

Once the players settle an area, another group might decide to try settling one of the other stationary numenera they passed up; this group doesn’t need to be hostile, just an impediment to the PCs making encampments at each device they found to monopolize them. Alternatively, they might be hostile, but not aggressive, seeing the PC’s settlement as unwanted competition for the local resources. In this case, once both towns are developed a bit, a cold war state might settle in, with conditions occasionally forcing them to ally against other, nastier threats.

The stationary numenera should be assigned a level and a depletion roll with a long-term reactivation check, but the depletion roll isn’t to see if the device is broken or out of power; rather, every year or so (or month, if playing on faster time scales) the players roll to see if the device goes into maintenance mode. This can be true even if the town is simply benefiting from an effect like a fold in space; whatever is inadvertently causing it goes into maintenance for the specified time period, causing the folded space to go away and the town to become exposed. Players skilled in the numenera (or lucky) can make a check against the device’s level to try to bypass the maintenance cycle, keeping it operational until the next check.

The environment and some random events should also be considered; there’s no need for a large, complicated table, but a small list of things that can happen per season or per year can help make things stay more interesting. Perhaps abhuman bandits arrive in the area, altering the power balance and forcing the PCs to deal with them one way or another. Perhaps strange weather settles in, with synth snows or glowing ‘data rain’ that impacts the crops. Or perhaps the PCs have to find a way to save the people of their town when the Iron Wind is spotted, moving toward them with a week or so before it arrives.

Lastly, consider where you want the game to end. Do you want them to retire as old and wise rulers passing their land on to their children or whoever they’ve selected as successors? Transit the game into a war between polities, with the game ending when the PCs either conquer all their nearby foes or their town is razed? When they develop enough to harness the nano-spirits of the area and become a true city-state, capable of matching the kingdoms of the Steadfast? Or simply when the players express an interest in making new characters to explore the mysteries their rulers can’t get the free time to investigate, further carving out a niche of the Ninth World for themselves?

Regardless, it behooves the GM to have an endgame (and a plot) in mind, even when allowing the players to play in a campaign sandbox like this.

We’ll be revisiting this topic in the future; until next time, may all your dice roll critical successes!

Numenera Framework: Kingmaker

Cyphers In Space

One of the key components of the Cypher system lies in the existence of the cyphers – one shot items that provide players with powers that can be as ridiculously powerful and unusual as the GM wants. With that in mind, I’ll be dipping into Cypher Space again to go over how these tools interact with the soft sci-fi setting I have.

I’m going to start by dividing cyphers into two categories – modern and Prior. Modern cyphers are those that, even if they’re not common, the players stand a chance of finding something available when they arrive at a civilized star system. Healing packs, short-term defense screens, one-shot weapons like grenades, and the like are the kind of thing that you can expect to find among the ranks of modern cyphers. The current era of galactic civilization is still comparatively young and working on learning the secrets of the universe anew, so unusual devices will still be pretty exotic and hard to come by.

Cyphers from the Priors, on the other hand, are the kind of thing that players will stumble across by accident on worlds with ruins from the great civilizations of the past, the ones who mastered the fundamental nature of the universe and manipulated it for their own use. A modern cypher might get you a jetpack that lets you fly around for a few hours; a Prior cypher will get you an anti-gravity sled that lasts a full day before the last charge runs out. Prior devices are an excuse to bend, break, and/or ignore the laws of physics on a whim, at the will of the GM who chooses to let them loose in the game. There’s no promise of ever seeing another cypher like that again, and the effects are almost certain to be amazing.

Often, modern cyphers are attempts to replicate the effects of Prior cyphers; the industrial world of Zuzian IV is well-known for producing Hyperpulse Grenades that open miniscule rifts into hyperspace, briefly exposing an area to the strange radiation. These grenades are an attempt at duplicating the failsafes used by the Zuzian Empire’s spies, a cache of Prior devices keyed to activate when the spy dies; the activation tears open a rift that draws the spy’s corpse and most other things nearby into hyperspace, effectively exiling them from the universe. Even the best attempts at recreating Prior devices falls short by orders of magnitude, however.

Other, more subtle Prior cyphers also exist; things like jewelry dug up from an ancient ruin, still glistening despite the eons, may have a special power woven into it by ancient technology. It may provide a sudden burst of Armor in the form of a probability twist, making the damaging shots glance to the side, or it might subtly magnify the wearer’s inertia, granting them an asset in movement-related tasks. These cyphers are almost never recognized as such, given their level of near-magical power, and no knock-offs are likely to exist.

It would be remiss to not also address the existence of artifacts in Cypher Space, given their similarity to cyphers. Again, artifacts can be divided into modern and Prior categories; modern artifacts are almost always attempts to recreate Prior devices. As such, a modern artifact might be something like the energystaves of the Scions of Sorkios, elegant-looking poles crammed with machinery that can produce a controlled ‘spike’ of a force field at the end. These devices can be used to very slowly and crudely hack through any matter of a lower level than the energystaff itself, and have a distinctive silver-blue radiance when activated that makes them appear quite impressive in the hands of the Scion Imperial Guard.

The device from which the energystaves are derived, however, is the sacred symbol of the Scions – the Force Halberd of Sorkios, a delicate pole of metal handed down since before recorded memory among the Scions that can generate an axe-like blade of force that can easily cleave materials of a level equal or lower than it, as well as produce blasts of kinetic energy that can flatten anything in a small area. The Scions rarely activate the Prior device, fearful that it may one day run out of power.

Another Prior ‘artifact’ that modern artifacts have been derived from is the Antaran Sentinel Ship, a destroyer-sized automated ship that remains in orbit around Antara II; attempts to communicate with it are met with silence, attempts to approach it are met with increasingly powerful weaponry, and attempts to attack the world it guards are met with horrifically powerful responses; any ship-based weapon systems that power up within a light-minute of the ship will find a sensor lock on them. Even the planet itself isn’t entirely safe; weapons above personal firearms on the surface are destroyed with a precision orbital strike.

The Antaran people are absolute pacifists as a result, but their proximity to the destructive power of the ship has given them all they need to build sidearms that can mimic the power of the ship’s armament. These are used on Antara II as tools for sculpting the landscape; robots are sent out with them to flatten areas for new building or clear fields to make them ready for planting, in case the power of the device should spike too high and prompt the Sentinel to destroy it.

The Antaran Sentinel Guns aren’t particularly powerful, but the resonance of their beams allows them to bypass most forms of defense and carve straight through normal matter, rendering both conventional armoring and force fields effectively useless. Unfotunately, attempts to scale the weapons up have all spectacularly backfired, with the least-destructive attempt leaving a crater a kilometer across behind.

Finding a cache of Prior devices – particularly a cache all of the same type – is the dream of many members of Exploration looking to retire early on a new fortune. More often, the challenges involved in such a cache result in the other kind of early retirement…

Cyphers In Space