Last night marked the first time in about three months that the entire crew was around for D&D. It was fun to have everyone together once again, though the intervening months have changed how I’m viewing RPGs a bit. For those of you in my campaign, don’t worry, we’re not stopping any time soon.
I’ve traditionally viewed D&D as a prep heavy system. You’ve got to think through what the players are likely to be doing, then comb through the Monster Manual to populate the possible encounters with appropriate creatures. The monsters themselves are generally straight forward with 5th edition, but when you’ve got a level 7 party the options are pretty much wide open. Add in the fact that you’ve got tons of magic spells to run through, and you’re looking at quite a bit of time dedicated to reading and cross referencing. Good thing the lore in the Monster Manual is really interesting, otherwise I’d have probably killed the campaign by now. All of this creates a lot of structure, and really defines the players’ expectations about how they can go about solving problems in D&D. If there’s a creature you kill it, if it’s another sort of problem you Detect Magic it then try to figure out how you can beat the problem with the spells and skills the system has defined for you. It’s a large box, which makes it hard to think your way out of.
During the interlude I ran Numenera for Monte Cook Games at Gen Con. I’ve enjoyed the system as a player, and thought the idea of running it would be fun as well. The adventure we were given for the convention was based upon instant adventure format used in the Weird Discoveries book that was published earlier this year. There are a few defined events and locations the characters will like hit, some key items or information they should run across and that’s about it. There was some additional information about the city of Qi and a stat block for the big bad monsters. It totally sold me on running Numenera, and it’s changing how I prepare for my D&D sessions.
The thing that I think really makes Numenera stand out from basically every other RPG that I’ve played is the ability for players to spend Effort to make skill checks easier. This feature of the Cypher System makes skill checks far more interesting. It also makes interactions outside of combat actually have more consequence.
Let’s say our group of adventurers encounters a bottomless chasm which they need to traverse. There’s a flimsy rope bridge that spans it, and it will require careful navigation to get across.
In D&D I’d be calling for Athletics/Acrobatics checks from my players and tell them it’s a Moderately difficult check (15). There isn’t much for players to do here aside from check their skill list, then roll a d20. Perhaps they may come up with something that would help them get across which I could give them Advantage for. Either way, the players will roll to get across or fail and have something else happen (yes, as a DM I’d be coming up with something more interesting than “You die!” as the failure state). Once they get past the chasm they’re good.
In Numenera I’d call for level 4 Speed checks to get across. Now, before the players pick up the dice they’d get to think about several things. Do they have any skills that would help them get across the chasm? The Jack may be trained in Tumbling and would suggest that it would help him in this situation (sure does, that’s an asset). Do they want to spend any Effort to get across? Deplete the Speed pool as desired and make the check easier. Now, some of the characters will be able to scamper across without issue, but some of the clumsier characters may be spending Effort to do it. Once they get across that chasm it still has a lingering effect. Rather than just being a roll, some players have spent resources to get across, but it empowers the players to have more control over these kinds of encounters.
Because non-combat encounters can be much more interactive between the players and the GM, it really makes them far more fun to actually have. I have a feeling whenever I have a non-combat encounter in D&D, I’m going to be wishing the players would have more options on their end than just looking at spells and skills. Then again, perhaps I just need to be more creative as a DM and give them more bonuses when they’re thinking outside of that box.