Explorers of the Ninth World put themselves in danger constantly. Sometimes this danger takes the form of hostile cyborgs or animated rock formations. Sometimes it’s the raw elements. But for those whose idea of treasure is a one-time use shield generator, jury rigged from the parts of a nuclear reactor one has to ask: what about the radiation from that reactor? Seems like the intrepid adventurers we see in our games should be coming up against some seriously dangerous stuff when toying with the playthings of the masters of the universe and its forces.
So, below I’ve come up with a few ideas for things to ponder when PC’s wander into the ruins of the prior worlds. Most of this research is wikipedian, so don’t stake your life on it, but it should be suitably realistic for our purposes.
Obviously, going gritty is a stylistic choice with a lot of narrative and mechanical implications. Some players don’t like consequences to get too serious and shy away from games that seem to incentivize their characters staying at home cowering. GM’s should be sure to talk things over with their players before dolling out long term injuries or plopping instantly deadly forces of nature into combats.
By the Book
So, the place to start for exotic effects is the damage section of the core book. Pages 92 through 95 have most of the rules, with the particularly useful Damage From Hazards table on page 94. This table covers falling, fire, acid, cold, electricity, and crushing damage, giving us a great starting place and a sense of scale for the amount of damage. One important thing to note is that in the damage column nearly all of it is classified as ambient, which means it bypasses armor. The exceptions being falling and crushing. Clearly most damage from energy sources, rather than objects slamming into PC’s, is ambient.
Thinking About Scale
One thing to note here that’s I think sometimes forgotten about the Cypher System is that the damage doesn’t necessarily scale based on the PC’s Tier, just as Difficulties don’t. Things don’t inherently get harder, just because the characters are more powerful. As they get more powerful they can overcome more and more of these hazards, which will likely allow them to face tougher and tougher dangers, but that doesn’t mean that fire is hotter or ice colder at higher Tiers. In keeping with this, we’ll want to stay away from trying to scale our damage and other nastiness to the player Tier, but rather to the condition we’re trying to simulate.
Example: We’re designing an encounter for 4th Tier characters in the caves around an active volcano. Obviously the set-piece final battle should be in a room full of flowing lava. Obviously. Since the characters are fourth Tier we might initially start thinking about the lava pit in terms of how much damage these characters can likely take at this point, knowing what their Armor is and what kinds of Esoteries the Nano has, but that’s NOT in keeping with the Cypher System.
The Damage from Hazards table says that lava does 6 ambient damage per round. Getting out of a pool of lava sounds rather difficult (both hot and “sticky”), so let’s call that a Level 5 item for the purposes of getting stuck in it. A lavafalls would be even worse, so let’s say there’s one of those in the area and call it Level 6. And let’s say there’s a stone bridge near it, leading to the important MacGuffin in the scene (a computer terminal that manages geological changes, allowing the PC’s to save a nearby village from the volcano, for instance). They’ll get attacked by the bad guys, and the GM can Intrude that or more of the PC’s gets knocked into the lava during the fight.
Doing it this way empowers PC’s instead of disempowering them and incentivizes smart thinking and XP investments. If I want to be able to walk through fire and find the powers and items to do so, my GM shouldn’t be planning to create an adventure with upped damage from fire, just to thwart my efforts. The whole point was so I could walk through fire! This doesn’t mean a GM shouldn’t try to come up with new challenges, but just bear in mind that the forces of nature shouldn’t automatically get harder just because the PC’s have a lot of XP.
Besides raw damage itself, the major effects of these kinds of dangers we might want to consider are:
- Dazed. The difficulty of all tasks is increased by one. Dazed usually only lasts one round, but a continuing effect might make sense in certain cases, such as when drugged.
- Stunned. The character can’t take an action, though they can still make defensive rolls. Also usually only lasts for one round.
- Movement Down the Damage Track. Moving down the track, as though an entire pool had been depleted is a great way to up the ante on a danger. Just make sure you don’t pull this one out too often.
- Permanent Injury. Loss or damage to a sense, loss of limb, etc. Not to mention color changes and even stranger modifications that nanites and chemicals might do to a person. Might want to look at the Mutations rules in Chapter Nine of the core book.
- Lasting Damage. Reducing a character’s Might and/or Speed pool can serve as a form of harm that simulates reduced ability to function and the mechanic is already used for armor encumbrance, so it’s relatively easy to deploy. This one’s nice because it can be used for short, medium, or even long term damage. It’s rather brutal though, so use it sparingly.
Who Gets Hurt
There are clearly several ways for a PC to get exposed to these kinds of dangerous energies and materials, the most obvious being large concentrations of the stuff and traps. Another possibility would be that those who tinker with the Numenera have the most chance of dangerous exposure. Those checking out newly found Cyphers or Artifacts could easily be placed in danger, adding a gritty survival element to the game. This can be a way to even the danger and damage out within a party with more traditional Type roles- the Glaive gets hit out in front, the Jack when disabling traps, and the Nano when discovering Numenera.
Chemicals & Nanites
Both of these sources of danger can have more mental effects, than just physical- mind altering, hallucination inducing, etc. But the physical effects can be real as well. Hitting a nanite cloud that turns surfaces to synth can be as dangerous as it gets, for instance. And be sure to include chemicals that are far more exotic than those in our world- with odd properties and effects to keep things interesting. This is a great way to keep it weird and sci fi all at once. Why not an underground lake that turns people into coherent liquid versions of themselves? Why not a nanite dust that turns food into light and flesh into fire?
Cold, Electricity, & Heat
Lucky for us this stuff is mostly handled by the existing rules. The thing you might want to expand on might be how to deal with burns. We’ve all had sunburns and seen how debilitating they can be, not to mention actual fire burns. I’ve touched the cooling element on a freezer and can tell you it feels like fire. Electricity can cause internal burns. All these things need to be treated, and the agony they cause sound to me like being Stunned or knocked down the Damage Track for a while. Even just reminding the player to RP the pain can really add a lot to a scene, or add urgency to a survival story.
Also known as “hypergravity”. Altered gravity conditions could easily crop up when exploring prior world technologies so let’s talk about its likely effects. First of all, being hit by a wave of gravity is fairly similar to being slammed into the ground, so we can probably deal regular (non-ambient) damage. But there are all kinds of other effects to keep in mind. Continued hypergravity should also impair movement and obviously jumping. It might make it harder to swing a sword and reduce the efficacy of arrows. Simulations show that moving one’s head while under the effects of higher than normal gravity confuses the inner ear and causes a person to feel as though they are tumbling head over heels. Sounds like Stun to me or worse.
Small doses of ionizing radiation over a period of time will cause cancer. Cancer is serious stuff, especially in the Ninth World where the science to eliminate it would be limited to those with the right Numenera devices. Some devices might exist to detect, others to cure. An interesting sub-plot might involve a character acquiring the disease due to exploration, discovering its existence through detection Numenera, and then seeking out a cure, visiting remote ruins or communities rumored to possess medical miracles. The GM will likely wish to treat this as a Disease (see the Numenera core book page 95). Reducing maximum Might or Speed pool until it’s cured may work mechanically, for instance. You may even want to use this as a terminal plotline. Radiation caused cancer may be a rather common hero’s death after years exploring dangerous places for the future of humanity or wielding high-energy weapons in the name of your empire.
High doses of radiation over a shorter period will cause burns and oddly enough skin tanning in some cases. The fire damage rules will likely work for these purposes, though a grittier treatment of severe burns might be interesting and serve as a more visceral reminder of the dangers that explorers face.
It may be possible that character are exposed to radioactive fallout, which is normally the result of nuclear explosions and takes the form of flaky dust particles. The effects of fallout are usually burns and hairloss. Lost hair in animals was later regrown as patches of white fur. I take that as inspiration, myself.
The book mentions sound in the section about Stun effects, so obviously that’s a possibility with loud noises. More permanent damage might occur as well, which opens up the potential for longer term plots. Hearing aid Artifacts surely exist somewhere, potentially making the character superhuman in the end. Anyone who’s been around powerful sound equipment can tell you that sound can really penetrate the body, not to mention the ear, so this is a clear case for ambient damage. Some sounds can even push objects around or hold them up. All kinds of interesting Numenera could come up employing these effects.