Numenera is a game designed with the GM in mind. It’s fun, fast, and easy to run. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get better at it – making the game more intense and memorable. Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up that revolve around making moments more intense, suspenseful, and tailored better to the characters they involve.
Don’t Tell Them the Difficulty
The first step to creating a game that’s thrilling is playing with knowledge. Difficulty levels are the most powerful, and at times the most subtle, things you can play with to create an atmosphere of mystery. Players thrive on knowledge – they want to know exactly how likely they are to succeed in any given situation. The fact that they can apply Effort to increase their chances will make them want to know their chances even more. Don’t give in.
Sure, with new players you should tell them their targets so that they learn the rules. And with low difficulty tasks it’s good to mention them, so that players don’t spend effort on easy things too often. But jump them with a bandit with a plasma whip and you’d better keep that target to yourself. Watch them struggle to figure out how tough a foe is. Watch them differentiate between your baddies in a fight, trying to piece things together. It’s mystery and tactics all in one.
Now, the character with the Scan spell is going to pick up on this fast and start scanning everything in sight, but not everything is scannable and quite a few problems crop up suddenly. Let the Nano who invested in Scan have their fun by letting them get some information when they get the chance. No big loss and they get to shine. Nothing wrong with that.
Removing this little bit of knowledge from anything potentially dramatic can add A LOT of tension to a game about resource and risk management such as this, so don’t throw this tool away by being nice.
Turn Intrusions into Suspense
Intrusions can be anything bad, so why make them automatically hurtful? Far better to pay the players XP to get them into a situation that puts them on edge. Normally you might do this: “Here’s your XP, I’m Intruding. While you swing your weapon, you slip and fall.” But why not do this: “Here’s your XP, I’m Intruding that if you miss with this attack, you’ll slip and fall.“? Sure, you’re giving them a chance to get XP for nothing, but now the player needs to think about spending Effort on that action. They might even think about spending their newly earned XP on a reroll. And forcing a character to expend resources is the same as hitting them with an attack.
So what do you gain by changing it up like this? Suspense! The goal, as a GM, should be to make as many memorable moments as possible, and this trick makes them every time. “Remember that time I almost fell off the tower?” “Oh, that time I slipped in the mud after putting all that effort into the hit!” Just as good, if not better, than cramming a harder situation down their throats, is giving them the chance to get past it. You don’t have to make it easy, though. This is a great situation to pull out the higher numbered Difficulty levels. First tier characters with some skill and some effort can take on Difficulty 5 or 6 challenges from time to time. So let ’em rip. They’ll brag about it later if they make it!
Let Them Pick Their Own Intrusions
On the flipside of turning Intrusions into suspenseful situations is turning them into opportunities for collaborative storytelling. An Intrusion doesn’t have to be decided by the GM. Why can’t the player do the suggesting? A game can feel a lot more like a dramatic story if the problems a character encounters are well tailored to that character. And the players know their characters far better than you do. Maybe your player is looking for a moment of weakness for their character. Maybe they want a run of bad luck. Maybe they want to be forgetful. Maybe you always forget to do Intrusions and your players are craving that delicious XP.
This can be a great way of turning a game that can at times feel classically antagonistic between the GM and PC’s, into a more modern, collaborative storytelling game. And with the frequency with which some people roll ones, using this method can take a lot of the creative burden off of you as a GM, while making your players feel more in control of their stories.
Rolling a 20 is Always Badass
The most exciting moment in Numenera is often when you’ve set up the players with a moment of suspense – they’re losing the fight and the ticking time bomb is about to blow. Lives are on the line and it all comes down to the next couple rolls. And that one player, the one that doesn’t talk much, throws the die and rolls a 20! Everybody cheers, the quiet player smiles, and you tell them what they’ve won.
The most important part of setting up this kind of dramatic gaming moment is making sure everybody knows the stakes. They should feel like a low roll can really set them back, and a high roll can really mean something. To do this you have to make 20’s special. Every single time someone rolls a 20, you need to give the player extra information, extra loot, extra Assets on future rolls. The players need to know that spending an XP on rerolling can turn the tide and that if they can just hit that 20, you’ll reward them well.
It’s hard to do. The game can at times be full of rolls, so 19’s and 20’s can happen all the time, but if you want this to work, you have to set their expectations high.
Let Them Press Their Luck
While making sure 20’s are spectacular is important, so is adding more opportunities for suspense. Instead of just offering the player an extra attack on a 20, give them the option to press their luck and go for a beheading. Warn them that if they miss on the second roll, they miss entirely and get nothing for their 20. Situations like this are just like the suspenseful Intrusion – they force the player to make a choice, and really think about their resource spending, their tactics, and how important what they’re doing really is.
Use these techniques in the right combination and you’ll have players sighing and cheering over roll after roll- scared, excited, worried about the outcomes of the dice, and caring about the implications of those rolls on their characters. Good luck, and Iadace.