Numenera and the Concept of the Weird World

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Most fantasy, though, seems to have limits. “high fantasy” is a super-popular sub-genre which practically defines the sweep of its parent, thanks to the enduring nature of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other folks who use letters as whole names, and folks like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss whose names are short enough to spell out in their entirety. I shouldn’t have to elucidate the meaning of “high fantasy” for you, dear nerd, but in the event someone happens along who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, consider this: elves who live in trees, dwarves with Scottish accents who live under mountains, humans who bumble through the world and reproduce at astonishing rates, maybe a live dragon or memories of dragons long since dead, orcs, trolls, giant spiders, and of course, magic both good and evil. Despite the presence of magic as magic (unlike “the Force as midichlorians”), high fantasy worlds seem to have a hard stop to their possibilities. The genre offerings always seem to have lines that they won’t cross, because even when you’re talking about pointy-eared humanoids who live hundreds of years and in the woods, there are some ideas which are apparently too wacky to approach.

Thing is, I LIKE the wacky approach a lot more than fantasy with artificial bounds. Sci-fi will always need to be rooted in the idea that “we’ll get there, someday”, which is why I love shows like Battlestar Galactica (the newer) and The Expanse (and the book form). Over the years, I’ve come to want more from my fantasy than what Tolkien’s legacy has left us with, and I’ve been able to find such things in works of Clive Barker (Imagica, et al), Felix Gilman (Thunderer, et al), and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, et al).

What ties these offerings together isn’t their lack of elves and dwarves, but their world building. High fantasy popularized the practice of deep world building, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find a D&D DM who DIDN’T get into the business because of his or her love of creating a whole world from scratch. RPGs, in particular, give people opportunities to create worlds to their liking, and a lot of game-runners tackle this step with gusto because it sets up the parameters of what is and is not possible for players and NPCs to accomplish. But world building is hard, especially if one has grown up only on a diet of high fantasy with its contrived limitations and an understanding that if the Evil Necromancer can raise an army of the undead, then by golly the players should be able to do that too! And if the players can wield the Sword of Interdimensional Collapse, then by golly…the Ultimate Evil should be able to do that too…for better or worse. I call this the “Deck of Many Things Conundrum”: give your players leeway to come up with creative solutions, but don’t destabilize the game world because if the players can do it, then the NPCs should be able to do it as well*.

When the world becomes a character, things get interesting. Case in point: Numenera, a setting that uses Monte Cook’s Cypher System for role playing games. The world of Numenera pulls absolutely no punches; several billion years in Earth’s future, humanity has survived several “ages”. Each new age is built upon the ruins of past ages which means that players in the current age are constantly finding bits of ancient artifacts — numenera — that are unexplainable and range from the stupidly mundane to the terrifyingly game-altering. Whereas high fantasy discourages the idea that the players should find themselves in control of something that could cause the fabric of reality to turn itself inside out, Numenera considers that kind of opportunity “a day that ends in ‘y'”.

As you can imagine, this opens up opportunities for game runners to throw down absolutely anything he or she wants to in an effort to reward or bait the players for making good decisions or to try and push them to make really, really bad ones. Magic works as either a mystical force OR as science. Space ships are either technologically invented OR are unexplained steampunk contraptions. A creature is either organic OR mechanical…or both…or neither if you can figure out a way to present that. When there is no explained limit to what can be done, or in the case of Numenera, explicit instructions that THERE IS NO LIMIT, things get weird…and difficult.

I tried setting up a Numenera play by post game once, and quickly found myself confounded by the options in the face of established examples of what Numenera is capable of. My scenario involved nothing more than a hand-wavey reason to put the players up against a criminal syndicate, which in retrospect seems lame, and a waste of the expanse of what Numenera provides. In fact, I was recently playing the soon-to-be-released Numenera: Tides of Torment on the PC when I realized that I am simply not equipped to do the Numenera world justice.

Case in point: This screenshot.

Click for the horrifying description

If you’ve ever read anything by Clive Barker or China Mieville, then the LEVEL of this kind of weirdness is par for the course. To me, it both makes my skin crawl and gives me gooseflesh because of the sheer level of malevolence and creativity involved in pushing well past the barriers of the kind of thing high fantasy would employ to tackle such a scenario. This is some other-world level stuff right here: one part mystical, one part horror, and one big part psychological. It takes the conceit of the world and employs it in ways that are projecting at an angle that can’t be measured by traditional geometry, and it hurts my head. I am in awe of the creativity in this one panel simply because I know such a system would never have occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m too practiced in the ways of high fantasy, too old to get my mind kick-started to think this far outside the box, or if I’m just nowhere near as creative as I’d always assumed I was. I suspect it’s at least a little from each column, and that makes me sad.

The Cypher System is one of a new breed of “anti-D&D” systems that have been cropping up over the past few years, where the rules call for fewer numbers, less dice, and more free-form roleplaying. For many, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, but I continue to really want to try. Problem is, I don’t know that I could ever do the system justice, certainly not on the level that Tides of Torment is offering. That is what makes me sad: it’s a great system with actual, limitless potential, and here’s me…wasting it.

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Like Sands Through The Hourglass

Posted by on Feb 16, 2017 in Gaming, Glamour Shots

[Bonus points for whoever can tell me where the title is from. Extra bonus points for admitting this publicly]

I has ragrets. I am not a big screenshot taker. In the days of my youth it never really occurred to me to save pictures of games or to record video, but in my defense back in My Day taking a screenshot was a painful affair. If the game itself didn’t support it, you needed an external app to handle it, and there weren’t that many (FRAPS and…). If a game did support in-game screenshots, it was usually followed by a session of “where the hell does this game store images on my hard drive?” Even when taking screens became a lot easier I still managed to avoid having a record of my gaming history, because at that point, I really just blame old age. You know how when you’re in the middle of something and you’re concentrating on it so when you finally get a breather and look up and, like, hours have passed, you’re hungry, and need to pee? It’s like that, except in addition to all those things, I smacked my forehead for not having taken any screenshots. 

A brief discussion on Twitter with Sers Dusty and Belghast made me realize how many screenshots I don’t have. This makes me sad on a personal level because all of the time I’ve spent in-game and what do I have to show for it? About as much as I’d have had I not spent all that time in-game. On the other hand, as a soloist, most of my screenshots would be of mundane things like landscapes and NPC conversations, and not memory provoking images of my time spent doing events with friends. More importantly, though, I’m missing a record of all of the games I’ve played, but which are no longer with us. 

I’ve tried to get better at taking screenshots, though. Back when it first launched, Forge’s biggest draw for me was that it could take a screenshot of whatever you were playing. Then they went all Brittany Spears circa 2007 with their streaming to Twitch and dropped that cool feature, only having brought it back in a weaker form just recently. I now use Greenshot, a desktop app which allows for full screen or regional capture but also uploads to Google Photo where I archive all of my pictures.

Last night I went through what images I have from semi-recent forays and organized them into folders because my dumping ground directory was just that — a massive pile of unorganized images. I sorted the images by game, leaving me with a more profound sense of loss in seeing how few folders there are, and how few images per folder there are. Even now, a lot of screenshots in those folders are on-demand captures of funny dialog, attractive landscapes, or regions of the screen that I used to send to other people to explain something about the game, or to use in a blog post. 

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

Looking at Greenshot, though, I realized that I should re-work the filename pattern to auto-sort the images into their own folders. This way, I won’t have to remember to sort them all into the appropriate bins and will have everything nicely organized for when I want access to those images. The key, of course, will be to remember to take those screenshots, because no amount of organization will be worthwhile if there’s nothing to organize. 

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