This is the first in a two part series on creating enemies suitable for combat in Numenera. It’s intended as a bit of advice to GMs on getting the ball rolling on making your own bad guys. Let’s set the stage with the mechanics and story elements of creatures for this one and then move into the more complicated matter of more intelligent combatants in part II.
Mechanics – Building the Perfect Beast
Everything in Numenera has a level, but this is especially important for creatures. Picking that perfect number is essential and the decision needs to be tailored to the size and Tier of the party, as well as the story you’re trying to tell. Level 1 and 2 creatures should probably never be put against players as single foes, though the mob rules on page 229 of the core rules can turn them into something useful as a group. For a first Tier party, a level 3 is easy and they can take on several, a level 4 is hard and they can take a couple, and a level 5 by itself is a challenge. I’m only parroting the core book here, but it’s a good starting place.
Level will tell you the most important thing – how hard is it to hit them and how hard is it to dodge them. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t raise or lower this target for certain types of actions or attacks. Chameleon skin might give a creature +1 level when defending against ranged attacks, etc. Making sure your players can’t easily use all of their abilities in any given fight is helpful in keeping things from getting stale.
Level also determines the default number of hit points it has and damage it deals. If you look through the creatures in the book you’ll see that many of them have a bit more hit points than level would normally dictate (3 x level). Some have 6 or so extra. Adding 3 or 6 more hit points to a creature is an alternative to adding extra armor to it in order to let it last a little longer. This is usually best saved for larger, more singular foes than for the 4 to 6 little guys the players are facing. Having to make an extra 2 or 3 hits on a less important creature just feels boring, whereas having a hard time getting that massive, dangerous beast down can add a sense of danger and accomplishment to the end of a fight.
Damage also varies in published creatures. It’s good to think about just how dangerous you want an encounter to feel when determining the damage level for a foe. A creature that’s relatively high level already is hard to dodge, and so greatly increasing its damage can potentially kill your PC’s. On the other hand, a group of level 3 creatures doing 3 damage each might not even be able to damage the character in the fancy armor, without a solid hit. I’ve found a good benchmark is – for new players: do the creature’s level as damage; for a standard, but exciting encounter: do level + 2 damage; for a very dangerous encounter: do level + 3 damage, and make sure at least one creature is hard to hit. More than level + 3 and you risk party kills, especially at lower Tiers.
Armor is the next most important decision, and it’s a doozy. Zero armor creatures are actually pretty easy to take down. Armor 1 creatures are a bit harder. But Armor 2 creatures can’t be damaged by light weapons without using effort for damage unless the player rolls a 17+ on the die. This is a quantum leap in power. You may want to wait to use Armor 2 until after the group generally reaches Tier 2, just to give the light weapon users a chance to learn the ropes. Higher than Armor 2 and you’re really prolonging each fight, but it can be useful when simulating a foe that has a lot going for it defensively, or that’s easy to hit but difficult to take down.
Assume that for each level of Armor you’re giving a group of creatures, that you’re adding about two more rounds to combat. Of course, add enough armor and the creature becomes nearly indestructible. This is one way to force the players to get creative real fast. A creature with Armor 6 can really only be taken down with a Cypher unless the group puts a great deal of effort into the encounter. Use this method infrequently if you value your reputation.
Make sure each creature has a regular attack, and one or two special attacks or powers. Special moves are there to keep things interesting, so feel free to let them attack more than one PC, attack more than once, drop them down the condition track, cause continuous damage, or otherwise challenge the players. Some special moves can be at higher level than the creature, ignore armor, and bypass the normal rules. Sometimes it’s fun to make special moves build up over time, creating a bit of suspense in the battle. A psychic attack that keeps getting more powerful, a heat drain that adds power to a nearby capacitor, etc. Make it interesting and challenging.
Story – The Ghost in the Machine
With the simplicity of the Numenera core rules and system for reducing stat blocks, the GM gets to focus on the story itself, including motivation, description, and the all important weird.
Make sure your creatures have a good reason to fight if they fight. Survival is nice, but many species simply flee when attacked, and this might be just what you want sometimes. Numenera is not necessarily a game about combat. Scaring off a few deadly creatures can be an interesting encounter too. Most creatures protect their young and their eggs. Many protect their mates. Some protect territory or challenges to their power and authority. Some want to eat you. In this world, some want to turn you into something or draw something out of you. Motivation is a chance to add some realism, danger, and weird to your games, so as often as possible ask yourself “Why is this creature fighting them?”
Few things are as important as a good description. Keep it brief, and keep it evocative. It’s good to be able to describe both the relevant facts, and the flashy superficial stuff all at once. When possible, relate your creature in terms your players already understand. So, “You find a group of weird things with long arms and hair.” would be bad, while “As you walk through the trees you notice that the canopy is inhabited by hairy primate-like beings with eyes that glow like red neon.” is a bit better. Keep it detailed enough to be evocative, and add little flourishes that keep them guessing. When possible, add more detail during combat – “You slice through its outer shell to find that it oozes an emerald colored liquid dotted with tiny glowing sparkles.”
Each creature should fit its location. It may have evolved to adapt to a strange substance or phenomenon. It may have learned to take advantage of the strange place it inhabits. It may be made of the surrounding materials, including those that are clearly manufactured, or waste. By connecting your creature to its environment you add realism, and in some ways plot. The slime-creature feeds on those trapped in the sludge at the bottom of the mountain. Once the players figure this out, they know to avoid the sludge, the slime-creature, and probably have some ideas about keeping local children safe.
KEEP IT WEIRD
This should be a familiar slogan to all Numenera GMs. Keeping it weird can be seen as your most important job besides running the game itself. The book recommends a great shortcut – when adding something weird, add two. One odd detail is one thing – two often takes it someplace really interesting. I might add that one key to keeping it weird and exciting, is making use of revelations. Players should constantly be discovering that what they thought something was is untrue. If necessary, change it on the spot. As soon as someone blurts out your cunning ploy – change it up. “But really it’s a…”, or “It turns to reveal…”, or “It suddenly transforms, becoming…”. These kinds of tactics will keep you and your players on your toes. Nothing should feel obvious or already explored. Numenera creatures should feel dangerous, wild, and mysterious.
Weird also comes out in motivation. Maybe that creature is more intelligent than you thought. Maybe it’s being controlled by an entity in the nearby temple. A useful revelation can be the realization that mindless creatures are not nearly as mindless as they seem, or that they have sinister/grisly motivations.
Next week will be part II, where we’ll discuss taking these concepts and applying them to more intelligent life.