Numenera is a game that, for me, screams out solo game. One player, one GM. Here’s why, who, where, and how.
Numenera is a game lost in time. It’s set in both the future and the past. A person in that world could easily feel alone. They could trek out into the strange world full of dangers, seeking answers and hoping to find riches or glory. But this game isn’t about the riches and glory. It’s about discovery and survival.
That’s why Numenera calls to me for the solo game. It’s a setting in which a character can get lost, fail to achieve their dreams, and still fulfill the game’s promise. They fulfill their destiny, overcoming a seemingly untamable wild. And a story about destiny needs only one hero.
No need for a party of adventurers patting each other on the back and cheering each other on. An intrepid or foolish individual could easily step out on their own, travelling light, so to speak. Friends just get in the way of doing your own thing and even their encouragement can be a bother and force you into doing things the easy way. I live in somewhat rural Oregon, and I see people like this all the time. Rugged individualists who walk off onto mountain trails without gear or build themselves underground hideaways. They exist even in our modern world. I know them. They’re people who feel deep down that if the shit hit the fan they could make it. And that potential calls to them. They want to be tested. They crave it. I think a lot of us crave it too and that that’s why post apocalyptic zombie survival stories speak to us. We all want a chance to show we can survive.
There’s something honorable and true about survival, especially alone. And Numenera gives us the perfect setting for playing out these fantasies. There are things worth finding. There are things worth surviving. There’s a reason to leave town and discovering what’s over the next hill. There’s so much to see and the game is designed around giving us just as little of the details as possible so that the world is full of promise and horror.
Let’s take a look at perhaps the most important character in the history of the Ninth World, the first Amber Pope. If you haven’t read this short story about his exploration of the Amber Monolith, you really need to read it. It’s in the Numenera core book, but it’s also right here on the Numenera website: http://www.numenera.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/The-Amber-Monolith4.pdf
Why is this story so good? Why does it seem to define Numenera? It’s a story about a single, lonely explorer barely surviving in a hostile world who goes on to found the Order of Truth, arguably the most powerful and influential institution in the Ninth World. This is the promise of Numenera, that each individual has the potential to take the most humbling of situations and turn them into the basis for major world change.
Soloist characters are the stuff of legend. They are alone and thereby forced to be an entire party unto themselves. They begin as flawed, perhaps humble beginners and conquer the world. Your plot can be as epic as you want it to be because it’s not tied down by making the group happy about where it goes and how. It’s just the two of you, telling a story.
Solo stories won’t take place is the big cities of The Steadfast. They wont take place on the small farms either. They’ll be out in the wilds, exploring some place nobody has trekked in the last thousand years or more. They’ll be in The Beyond, or beyond that. They’ll feature massive objects of the past, that paint haunting vistas in our minds. A GM should find ways to make isolation a physical thing in a solo game. Keep it light on the NPC’s. This is not a game about talking. It’s about facing the world head on and not flinching. Think about the loneliness of the movie Cast Away. How jarring it was when you heard other voices again. The GM will be there talking to the player, but as a narrator in a book, more than an interactive participant.
Monsters. Diseases. Forces of nature. The physical limitations of the human body. These are the foes a solo player character should be up against. The world is harsh and everything you cared about is gone. You are out in the wilds and nearly anything could bring you down. You are pushed to your limits. The PC should almost alway be running out of Pool points. They should cherish each rest and carefully ration the points spent on Effort. Survival should not be easy. It should be earned. The PC should always be tested. Again and again and again, sometimes facing more than one challenge at once.
Getting a single person to play with you might seem hard. GM’s often feel like their time and creative energy is a precious thing that should enlighten the lives of as many people as possible. But the solo game is not the same as any other game, just as a LARP is not the same as a tabletop. These unique experiences should be celebrated for their own sake as unusual and interesting and provocative. We should pair up with others willing to run or play in these kinds of games as often as we can because they shed new light on what it is to game.
Gaming with one and only one other person can be weird, personal, and almost by definition intimate. The GM will know much more about the PC than usual, customizing each encounter or plot twist for maximum impact and importance to that particular character. This is the chance to really explore a character. To become them and to then play out what the future holds for them. As a player the game couldn’t be more tailored to your tastes and choices. To the GM, there’s a great deal of focus to be found in such a game. Everybody has an easy to play, yet deep experience.