Artifact Depletion (or lack thereof)

Published October 6, 2014 by in Mechanics


I want to start a bit of a conversation here, so this won’t be a long post. But I’m definitely curious about what other people’s thoughts are about this mechanic. This started after digging into Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera and looking at some of the new artifacts that they included and having a conversation about it with one of my players (who agreed with what I’m going to propose below).

What I want to talk about are items like Bloodblade, which has no depletion roll on it. Or the Ultimate Grapnel, which has a 1 in 1d100 (1%) roll. It seems like there are actually quite a few artifacts in the book that fall into this category of low/no depletion rolls, where you have less than a 5% chance of the artifact being used up.

Simply put, I don’t like that.

I feel like, in the spirit of the game, no/low depletion on an artifact should be extremely rare. Part of the fun in artifacts is this idea that there’s at least some real risk to it failing after how many millennium it’s been sitting around. Even seemingly “passive” devices can and should run the risk of simply breaking due to wear and tear. The force of time is comparatively strong against even the most resilient fabrications of living beings. So while we accept the sci-fi-fantasy of energy cells that can last thousands of years, I think that’s a lot different from the idea that there are perpetual energy sources in some of these devices. Likewise, the materials they are made from can and should reasonably fail eventually. Even something like the Bloodblade, which physically interfaces with the body. The idea that it would fail and you’d be stuck with an ordinary (or better yet, broken) blade sticking out of your arm is part of the flavor a player should have to struggle with.

The house rule idea we came up with is relatively straightforward. Unless it arguably makes sense to have it otherwise, no artifact should ever have a depletion roll less than 1 in 1d20 (5%). Yes, you could also do failure via GM Intrusions, but I feel like that would just get to where it’s more of a “punishment” that’s inflicted on the players once a GM is tired of them slinging the artifact around which would wear on the players’ attitudes.

Now your part. Let me know down in the comments what your opinion is. Do you like that approach? Are you okay with super low depletion chances?

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  • Adriano Varoli Piazza

    I’ve thought to add a “first uses are free” clause, for very durable artifacts. It would suck to have what is essentially a cypher, otherwise. The problem with this is that tracking that is a pain.

  • Considering that PCs can ALWAYS just spend one xp to keep an artifact from depleting, I don’t have a problem with artifacts having low or no depletion. One of the beauties of the Cypher System in my opinion is that there is no need for house rules–if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I think some of us, myself included, are in a bad habit of constantly looking for house rules because we’ve played poor systems in the past. The Cypher System is not a poor system; it’s simple and elegant.

    • Michael Fienen

      I think a lot boils down to the group – for any game. A system by itself can be great, but the way a group utilizes it affects that dynamic. Not necessarily for better or worse, but just to where it has unintended consequences for that group of players because people play games differently. I mean let’s face it, none of us have probably been involved in a game that ultimately stayed letter-perfect to the rules of the game. Especially as GMs, we tend to streamline or skip rules that get in the way of the enjoyment and gameplay (my god, when I run Earthdawn, I’d probably make the creators cringe at the things we don’t do). Numenera I think does a great job of helping that, but I also still do it from time to time, too. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that this was a poor system, by any means. Just that this particular mechanic has some room for adaptation, I think.

      From our standpoint, artifact permanence does feel a little ‘counter-system’ in a world full of one use items and device uncertainty. Players certainly can expend XP to keep that item around, but that sacrifice should at least illicit some struggle for the character. If there’s not conflict, it simply isn’t interesting. For instance, if a player has 3-4 unspent XP they’re sitting on “just in case,” and they know they’ll end up with 3-4 more for the session, burning one to keep that artifact just doesn’t feel like it’s any sacrifice – it’s just bookkeeping then. I think that’s just an issue of trying to make XP a little too multipurpose though.

      But that’s just how it works for us. I’m looking at doing an online game for a totally different group of people, and I fully expect that to turn out differently.

      Re: your comment on Reddit about not giving out Artifacts you don’t want players to have. That’s not the same thing, to me. That’s not to say I haven’t done that – I have. But I don’t normally like doing it, mostly because I try to respect the design of the adventure’s author as much as I can, but also because dealing with things as a GM that I don’t want the players to do/have, is part of the fun for me. Then we do intrusions, unintended consequences, etc.

  • Angreal

    I agree the cypher system is great . What I question are the Artifact
    depletion rules. Our group played every adventure released for the
    Numenera set and ended up with more artifacts then we could utilize. We
    traded artifacts for shins and equipment because we had reached our
    encumbrance limit, due to the amount of gear and cyphers we carried. The
    GM resorted to GM intrusions in order to cull our artifact hording.
    Artifacts were rarely depleted due to statistics or the spending of exp
    stopping them from going away.

    I don’t know about everyone else,
    but our GM ran a tight game session and tested our ability to game and
    think. The true heart of Numenera is about exploration and adventure —
    not stock piling trinkets, but rather using them to advance the story.

    The
    reason Numenera drew me in was the “closer to reality” feel the game
    presented compared to the overzealous idea Dungon and Dragons gave
    players in a fantasy setting. This isn’t Thor, where techonolgy and
    magic are one in the same. If you want rods of lordly might or +3
    bracers of defense — play D&D. I don’t feel the artifact game
    mechanics were play-tested over role playing campaigns, but rather
    through short runs to test the usage.

    Time, which wears down and diminishes all
    things, augments and increases good deeds, because a good turn liberally
    offered to a reasonable man grows continually through noble thought and
    memory.
    Francois Rabelais – 1528

  • Christopher Blocher

    Depletion is, roughtly, balanced around the power level of the Artifact, to prevent more powerful artifacts from turning into game-breakers and allowing for what are, essentially, rechargable cyphers.

    Low-powered artifacts that don’t offer a good deal more than standard gear should have very low depelation rates. Mechanically, they’re not powerful enough to justify a higher rate of depletion, while story-wise having an artifact that doesn’t break or run out of power is incredibly easy to justify — neutronium thread or other incredible future material, a self-perpetuating energy source or something that draws off of a plane of existance, dimension, larger power source or reality to recharge itself.

    If you feel that an artifact is too powerful for its depletion rate, nerf it. However, I wouldn’t nerf the 1% depletion rate on principle. Given the super science that is the foundation of the setting, having artifacts depletion rates can, in many instance, be considered less realistic than not having them.

  • Frankie Blankenship

    It’s been so long since these artifacts were created, or the materials they are made of are so old that they do not last. It seems part of the broken universe feel of The Ninth World. Maybe an artifact found in a pristine million-year-old facility may work with less than a 1% chance of failure ever, or maybe that 1% only comes into play with a GM Incursion, so at least you get xp for taking that risk.