This is the second part in a two part series on writing adversaries in Numenera. Today’s advice is focused on humanoid or otherwise intelligent foes, and that changes everything.
Fighting it Out
In my previous article I talked a lot about combat stats and how to construct a creature worth fighting. Much of those pointers still apply to sapient enemies, with the modification that much of the justification for stats will be technological in nature. From leather jerkins to ultratech armor, many stats simulate the tech. This can make it hard, because the players will probably want that level 4 armor your bandit lord was wearing. The degree to which you allow such stats to translate into pilferable goods is obviously at your discretion, but it’s something worth thinking about when throwing together the stats.
Another major change to combat is the degree to which intelligent foes employ smart tactics. They’ll gang up on the weakest or most damaging of players. They’ll seek higher ground or other advantageous terrain. They’ll retreat when the odds are against them. They’ll notice the player in the corner pulling out an important device that could turn the tide of the battle.
A great trick with smart foes is to have them think of a brilliant or devious maneuver that really hits a character where it hurts, and employ the move as a GM Intrusion. This is where Numenera’s core mechanics really shine, as even one-on-one fights can be tense if a desperate enemy is stealing your weapon, activating your Cypher, or as Monte recently suggested – knocking you down the condition track.
Perhaps most important are the social aspects of intelligent foes. They’ll surrender under the right circumstances, maybe after a player makes an intimidation roll against them or otherwise makes it clear what’s in their best interests. They’ll speak during combat – pleading with or yelling at your players.
Take for example the situation of a paid guard at a noble’s mansion. Why is she there? Loyalty or good pay? Is the pay all that good? What happens to the guard’s family if she dies? Certainly surrender is a possibility for a paid guard who has other priorities in the world than dying heroically. If the players were to get an inkling of this before a battle, a story about breaking into a mansion suddenly becomes a story about making sure this guard figures out who she’s dealing with before she gets herself killed for no reason.
Every great villain needs minions, and their power is exponentially increased by the web of servants at their disposal. But this is also a weakness, as players have the opportunity to talk to these minions, convince them to switch sides, or interrogate them for information. Make sure there’s a realistic social element to every legion of unstoppable soldiers or gang of ruffians. A scene that ends in talking can be far more interesting than a scene that ends in death.
This isn’t D&D. Players get no extra XP for killing people. This opens up all new possibilities for drama as stories come to revolve more about exploring the human condition than about exploring how long it takes to kill someone. The potential for surrender helps to open this door.
Motivation, Motivation, Motivation
Combat is the expression of tension and drama – a moment when danger arises from conflicting motivations. It’s a great way to escalate the importance of a course of action, or to call it into question. Ideally your enemies should be more than just “bad guys”. Bad people do bad things for a reason – usually an understandable reason. Hunger, greed, lust for power, etc. Make sure intelligent beings have a good reason for endangering themselves.
Much of Numenera is about struggling against impersonal forces, unfathomable alien creatures, and technology gone awry. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but by involving an intelligent foe you change that up. You make the game about human nature through the lens of an apocalyptic setting, or a scary situation. You get to explore motivation and priorities.
Putting the players at odds with a somewhat understandable villain or two is worth exploring whenever you can. A villain who kills because he’s crazy and loves killing is scary, but a villain who kills to stay alive, or save their family, or serve a vastly powerful artificial intelligence – now that’s a story. That’s someone you can talk to and try to reason with and come into interesting conflict with.
Here are a few basic motivations that can turn into entire plot lines if worked right:
Some might call the setting of Numenera a survivalist’s paradise. Making it in a harsh, horrifying world can make anyone desperate. Give a character the right conditions and they’ll shine, even with so basic a motivation. Maybe they’ve been infected with something. Maybe their tribe is in danger. Survival can bring out the absolute worst in a foe.
The want for power, money, riches, and respect are pretty common in these kinds of games. Players love to take these jerks down a notch, but there are ways you can use these motivations with a bit of nuance. Maybe these desires are a cover for a more altruistic goal: “Only I can fix this world…”, etc. Just because someone plots to gain money doesn’t mean it ends there. Maybe they have plans to spend that money on something the city or countryside could use.
And not every desire-filled foe is a pompous noble seeking respect and a higher title. Some look like normal, even likeable, people. Some play the victim. Just as a good reveal with a creature keeps your players guessing, a turnaround in terms of an NPC’s seeming motivations can really mess with their assumptions.
Let’s face it, the dangerous life of a brigand or other thug has got to be about more than just a hand full of shins at the end of a long night of demanding that people “stand and deliver.” The fact that gangs and den’s of thieves are major tropes of criminal life tells us that these characters are socially bound to each other in a more meaningful way than simply a desire to rise to crime lord. While a band of criminals isn’t the most socially supportive group, and their concern for society at large is likely limited, the camaraderie of such dangerous pursuits is likely a major factor in their motivation. Why not add this nuance to your game? Let the bandits go crazy when the players kill one of their long-time friends. Let them warn players not to mess with the part of town known to house their extended families. Let them show concern when the children of the slums begin to show signs of a strange disease.
And don’t forget about military organizations. The pressure to be a true soldier of the kingdom or become worthy of knighthood is enough to inspire death-defying feats from seemingly identical rows of armor clad foot soldiers. And in such a dangerous place and time as the Ninth World soldiers likely have a front-line foxhole style mentality.
Oh revenge. We love this one don’t we? Every GM, every TV writer, every movie maker loves to pull out revenge as a motivation. Comic book writers have been known to have heroes’ long-time girlfriends be cut up and shoved into fridges just to prove that a new bad guy is bad and give the hero a reason to really really be mad. It gives characters an understandable reason to get violent, and violence is fun. But we can move beyond the obviousness of this motivation. We can do it with some nuance.
For instance, there’s no reason revenge needs to be an eternal motivation. Maybe eventually a villain gets their fill. Perhaps more interestingly, they might realize that nothing will fix their problem – killing people wont bring someone back. Perhaps the road to revenge has put them into a position of power, and now they pine for a time when they actually cared.
Revenge isn’t always about an event – certainly villains are often out to get revenge on society for a lifetime of pain and suffering. And this kind of story has a point – our society often creates the monsters that harm it. But we’ve all seen this before and so when we employ it we should take care to make it real, not campy. Make sure the players have at least one moment in which they sympathize with a villainous character of this type. Craft a scene in which the character shows themselves to be truly harmed by the impersonal forces of the world. Show them turning to anger as their only recourse.
Thank you for reading this two part exploration of foe creation for Numenera. We’ve only scratched the surface here, but I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about. Iadace.