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!