Keeping it Weird

Published March 10, 2014 by in For Gamemasters


mutant picture from page 135 of the Numenera corebook

TM and © 2013 Monte Cook Games, LLC

Keeping it weird is one of the most important jobs of the Numenera GM.  It’s a weird setting, with a lot of potential, and players expect a lot from us in the way of strangeness.  Here are a few tips I’ve come up with for doing it, in no particular order.  For advice from the corebook, see chapter 23.

  • Use the “The Weird of” sections in the geographic write ups of Chapter 11 in the core book.  Great inspiration for weird stuff to find in each area.

  • Utilize asymmetry.  A person with one arm made of crystal, or that glows red, or that is the pincer of a praying mantis- weird.  The asymmetry adds to the strangeness.  Humans want visual symmetry for some reason.  Use that by fighting it.

  • Figure out what creeps you out and draw upon that.  Squid?  Insects?  Strange textures? Jell-O?  Whatever you can barely handle should be poured into your weird.

  • Vary the subject of the weird.  It could be a person, a creature, a pet, an object, a location, an ambient effect, etc.  Keep it different and keep your players guessing.  Make the weirdest thing in any given scene be something different than the last time.

  • Employ facelessness.  Nothing says otherworldly than a creature without a humanoid face.  It’s something about the lack of eyes to empathize with or the wordless absence of mouth that does it.

  • Don’t always explain things.  Just don’t worry about it.  The party might enter a region in which time flows strangely.  The PC’s will wonder why, but you don’t need to give them an answer.  Part of Numenera is the mystery.  What’s great is that not explaining things frees you by allowing you to add interesting moments without needing to tie everything together in a neat little package.  Sometimes weird things just happen.

  • Timing is everything.  Don’t necessarily reveal all the weird all at once.  Let things get weirder and weirder the more the players explore.  Let them get creeped out over time and it will all the more gratifying.

  • Make the most of randomness.  Go to sites with lots of scifi or fantasy art (such as cghub.com) and hit the random image button a couple times.  Take what you find and fit it into your game.  You’ll be surprised how easily this puts you out of your comfort zone.  Use that.

  • Focus on the details.  Remember to make weird in clothing, accents, behavior, materials, smells.  Any little detail you can think of.  This is not to say that everything in your game should be weird.  Weird needs normalness to contrast with.  Just that weird doesn’t always have to be the monster in the ruins.  It can be the shopkeeper who can see without eyes and the child whose breath is visible as a purple gas.

  • Encourage players to get weird too.  Clothing, tattoos, cultural norms, weapons, sexuality.  The more the players get involved in the weird the more they’re buying into the premise of Numenera.

  • Describe strange materials.  One of the most important remnants of the prior eight worlds is their impossible building materials and dangerous waste products.  Make sure they defy common sense and physics as much as possible.  Players will do their best to harvest these strange things to make new stuff with useful properties.  Let them, it’s part of the fun.

  • Make sure strange things have strange minds.  Make their motivations capricious or illogical seeming.  Make them incomprehensible.  Play with language- pronouns and word tense can really add to the strangeness of an intellect.

  • Use foreshadowing and trails of breadcrumbs to lead up to the weird.  The PC’s come into a village and notice everyone is drinking a green goopy substance, and that they all seem extremely cheerful.  They later notice a swamp made of that same stuff.  They later learn that the goop is a single sentient creature that invades the minds of those who drink it, forcing them to enjoy their lives so that it can enjoy it too.  Slow lead up helps to really hit the players with a big bit of weird right at the end as everything falls into place.

  • Harvest sensations from your daily life so that you can use them in your games.  Use them in unexpected ways. “Three seconds of telepathic contact feels like drinking expired milk for an hour.”  “Its howl sounds digital and choppy like a modem trying to connect, crossed with the wail of a cat in heat.” “The sparkling cloak feels like a lukewarm shower on your shoulders and smells like rust after a rain.”