The Alexandrian

 Go to Part 1

Hugo Awards - 2014Moving up the list of literary length, I’m transitioning from the Hugo-nominated novelettes to the Hugo-nominated novellas. Let’s start at the bottom:

6. “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen.

This is an astonishingly bad story.

It literally opens with multiple pages of hamfisted “As you know, Bob” exposition. My favorite part of this incredibly lengthy sequence is, “As you know, Bob, you’re the one who brokered the original cease-fire with the horrible aliens.” I was really hoping the response to that would be, “Well, gosh, I’d plumb forgot that, Bobette! Thank goodness you reminded me!” Instead, the actual response is, “As you know, Bobette, I managed to convince the aliens that human religion was such a fascinating mystery that they shouldn’t wipe us out until they understood it.”

And thus we come to the central premise of the story: The aliens are genetically incapable of experiencing “faith” in anything they can’t directly observe or scientifically prove. (There are several problems with that, but let’s ignore them.) During the previous war, a human prisoner of war (our main character) realized that the alien scientists studying them were really interested in the concept of “religion” and managed to negotiate a ceasefire in exchange for teaching them about it. (This is fairly flimsy and is never really locked down with the kind of specificity required to make it seem in any way believable, but let’s ignore that, too.)

Where the story completely falls apart into silliness is when it’s revealed that the aliens refuse to talk to anyone about religion except the main character: Scholars and religious leaders and actual experts are offered, but the aliens refuse to talk to them. Okay, I’ll assume there’s some sort of hand-wavey “this is the way of the aliens” thing going on (although Torgersen never bothers to perform the hand-wave), but it gets even worse when it’s revealed that humanity itself has completely ignored this guy — the linchpin of human survival — for decades. And then it gets completely absurd when we learn that this guy is pretty much completely ignorant about religion and refuses to educate himself about religion in any way.

This final point might, in some way, be defensible if this was a story about this guy’s bullheaded stubbornness and ignorance. But, incredibly, that’s not the story: Instead we’re told repeatedly (and ad nauseum) that this guy will “do anything to finish the job, even if it means disobeying orders.” Apparently “anything” doesn’t include doing the one thing that might let you succeed at your job.

While this incredible sequence of baffling exposition is tumbling out through turgid and repetitive prose (the second scene literally consists of the exact same exposition as the first scene being delivered through a slightly different set of characters exchanging “as you know, Bob” witticisms), the actual plot of the story is slowly unfolding. And it is equally hilarious: The humans have managed to reverse engineer some of the alien technology and have rebuilt some of their infrastructure from the previous war. If they have enough time they might be able to level the playing field, but they know that if fresh hostilities break out that they’re seriously, seriously screwed.

So the humans decide it would be a great idea to start the war themselves by assassinating the alien leader at a peace conference.

You might think that would be the nadir of the story, but no: You still haven’t gotten to the part where the main characters try to outrun spaceships on foot.

Grade: F

5. “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Durance and Ellen Klages.

Wakulla Springs - Andy Duncan and Ellen KlagesThis is a tough one.

“Wakulla Springs” is a beautiful, haunting, multi-generational story rich in atmosphere and character and subtle drama. It is easily the best-written and possibly the most entertaining novella nominated for the Hugo Award this year.

It also isn’t speculative fiction.

So while I highly recommend that everyone reading this take some time out of their day to read it over at Tor.com; to savor all of its rich complexities; to luxuriate in its soft warmth; to swim through its crystal clear prose; to twist painfully in its easy evocation of a primitive and savage age… Ultimately I’m constrained by the same standard I confronted with “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” in the short story category: This story fundamentally doesn’t qualify for the award, and therefore I’m forced to rank it here.

Grade: A

4. NO AWARD

3.”Six-Gun Snow White” by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne ValenteWhile reading “Six-Gun Snow White” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the story to reveal some incredibly clever (and hidden) dimension which would transform it into a mind-blowing experience. But… the shoe never drops. This is a story which fundamentally asks, “What if Snow White was a Native American girl who… I dunno… had a gun?” And then reveals that the answer is, “She would be a Native American girl who has a gun.”

There’s just something lacking in it.

This simplistic reading of the story, however, does it a fair share of disservice. The reason I was waiting to have my mind blown is because Valente’s storytelling is incredibly complex, her prose is richly compelling, her fantastical imagery is richly evocative, and her exploration of character is heart-wrenching. Valente is also doing some really fascinating deconstruction work on the underlying fairy tale and using it to inject immense depth and breadth into her characters.

In short, it’s a great story and it is told with precision and skill. It just never quite reaches the point of critical mass necessary for the scintillating fission it holds out with a tantalizing and yet ultimately unfulfilled promise.

Grade: B-

2. “Equoid” by Charles Stross

Equoid - Charles StrossCharles Stross writes great and imaginative stuff and he writes it faster than I can keep up with it.

“Equoid” is part of his Laundry series, featuring a mid-level employee of the British intelligence service dedicated to dealing with the hidden realities of the Mythos. Previous entries in the series generally take a fascinating and original spin on the Lovecraftian Mythos and hybridize it with a satire or homage of a popular thriller or spy novelist (Len Deighton in The Atrocity Archive; Ian Fleming with The Jennifer Morgue; and so forth).

“Equoid” follows the same model by unveiling an incredibly clever and utterly creepy Lovecraftian interpretation of unicorns and then crosses that with a satire of… H.P. Lovecraft.

And that combination doesn’t quite work. Partly for the same reason that Woody Allen’s Casino Royale or Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers fall flat (trying to satirize a creator with their own work is problematic at best), but also because it seems somewhat mean-spirited to write a series of bestselling novels on the foundation of Lovecraft’s work and then write a story where you literally call him a hack. When you’re standing on the shoulders of giants you shouldn’t unzip your trousers and start pissing on the giants.

I don’t even really think that Stross intends for the story to come off this way, but I’ve read it twice now and the bad vibe it has really takes the shine off.

With that being said, Stross’ conception of the unicorn is awesome. And the plot races forward in a careless careen of headlong excitement. So I still recommend it.

Grade: B

1. “The Butcher of Khardov” by Dan Wells

The Butcher of Khardov - Dan WellsWhen I first scanned the list of nominees for Best Novella, I’ll admit that the WarMachine tie-in fiction was the last story I expected to top my list. But here it is.

And the reason it’s here is because “The Butcher of Khardov” is just a fantastic piece of fantasy fiction: Wells centers his story around the biography of a strong central character and then presents the tightly plotted arc of the character through a cleverly constructed non-linear narrative that cranks up the dramatic stakes.

It should be noted, perhaps, that I am not personally well acquainted with the WarMachine universe, so the milieu of this story really had to live or die on its own merits. And it thrives. The fantasy elements are interesting, the depth of the setting is leveraged to also create a sense of distance within the character’s own timeline, and the day-to-day life of the inhabitants is vividly transmitted through the page.

Grade: B+

Go to Part 1

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesBefore we proceed, I want to talk a little about my assumptions here: By default, the process of advancing a tier means that you gain +4 stat points, +1 to an Edge of your choice, +1 Effort, and a skill. (You’ll also pick up extra abilities from your character’s Type, but we’re not going to worry about that for the moment.) For the purpose of these discussions, however, I’m not going to be looking at characters who have dumped all their advancements into becoming hyper-specialized at doing one thing.

For example, I’m going to assume that characters are spreading their Edge boosts around instead of concentrating them all in a single stat. (In practice, I’ll be assuming that your highest Edge will be 1 + ½ your Tier.)

For the purposes of analyzing what characters are really capable of, I’m also going to be bumping up the descriptions of tasks with difficulties of 8+ (for the reasons that I described in Part 1). In practice, we’ll be looking at something like this:

7Impossible without great skill or great effort
8Impossible without great skill or exceptional effort
9A task worthy of tales told for years to come
10A task performed by those who become legends in their own time
11A task worthy of legends that last for lifetimes
12A task that normal humans couldn't consider under any circumstances

(Difficulty 12 is the significant breakpoint here because a person with specialization, the best circumstances in the world, and willing to expend a single level of Effort still couldn’t possibly succeed.)

TIER 1 vs. TIER 3

Our general discussion has gone a long way towards establishing our baseline expectations for a Tier 1 character: They’ve got Edge 1 in one or two ability scores and they’ve got one level of Effort. If we imagined a “Tier 0” character who lacked any Edge or Effort, the Tier 1 guy can last a little longer and can also accomplish things that are a little bit tougher. We might think of him as being just a little bit better than a normal Joe, but the types of things he would consider “normal” or “routine” haven’t really shifted.

Now, let’s compare that starting character with a character who has achieved Tier 3: They’ve got Effort 3 and their high Edge is 3. They’ve probably also picked up at least one specialization.

The upper limit for this character in general has now become Difficulty 9: “A task worthy of tales told for years to come.” They don’t have to be skilled at it; they don’t need a great set of tools or perfect circumstances. They just focus their Effort on it and they’ll do stuff that people in the local aldeia will still be talking about a decade from now.

In their area of specialization, however, things are obviously even better: Without expending an effort at all, they can achieve things normal people would consider impossible (difficulty 8). Even under the worst conditions (+2 difficulty), they’re still capable of accomplishing stuff that average people would find intimidating under normal conditions.

And their absolute upper limit is even better: Specialization (-2), effort (-3), and a couple of assets (-2) means that they’re already capable of accomplishing difficulty 13 tasks… they’ve already blown the cap off our difficulty scale.

What type of stuff can they succeed at 50% of the time? Well, in general they can succeed at Intimidating tasks (stuff normal people almost never succeed at) 50% of the time by expending effort. If they’re specialized and have favorable conditions, they can achieve the impossible 50% of the time.

Notably, however, the stuff they consider routine doesn’t accelerate as quickly: Instead of just the stuff average people consider routine (difficulty 0 tasks), they also consider stuff people consider simple (difficulty 1 tasks) routine. Perhaps more telling, the “standard” difficulty of the game is now routine for them.

Okay, let’s use our touchstones: Even if these characters aren’t specifically trained at a task, they are capable of crafting any numenera item in the game; they can climb across smooth ceilings; and they are likely to possess knowledge very few people possess. If it’s their specialty, then they possess “completely lost knowledge” and they can do whatever the equivalent of climbing a wall of glass without any equipment is.

TIER 3 vs. TIER 6

So what we’ve rapidly established is that the small numbers of the Numenera system rapidly accumulate huge shifts in power and ability.

A Tier 3 character can generally perform the seemingly impossible and will, in their specialty, be capable of feats that will literally make them legends.

Because that top end already strains our ability to really comprehend what they’re capable of, the big conceptual shift between Tier 3 and Tier 6 is in the routine: With Edge 4 in their specialty, tasks of standard difficulty have become routine. More notably, that which normal people consider difficult they automatically consider simple.

(Pause and think about that for a moment: Think about the stuff that you find really difficult to do. The stuff that gives you a sense of satisfaction when you complete them successfully. Tier 6 characters consider that stuff trivial.)

The other end of the scale becomes simply staggering: Effort 6 expands their general range of ability (without skill or favorable circumstance) to difficulty 12 tasks; i.e., stuff that normal humans couldn’t even consider doing. Combine that with specialization (-2) and favorable circumstances (-2) and you’re up at difficulty 16… which is just completely off the human scale.

How far off the human scale? Well, the difference between “task worthy of legends that last for lifetimes” and what these characters are able to achieve in their specialization is the difference between a task the “most people can do most of the time” and “normal people almost never succeed”. (If there was a world where every high school basketball player had the skills of Michael Jordan, these guys would be the Michael Jordans of that world.)

Our touchstones have already been rendered largely useless, but consider this: Tier 6 characters who are not specifically skilled in climbing are nevertheless capable of expending a little effort and climbing featureless glass walls 45% of the time.

In an area of specialization (-2) they’ll have a 15% chance of knowing a piece of completely forgotten knowledge without spending any pool points. If they expend maximum effort, their chance of knowing something which (I must repeat) is completely forgotten rises to a mind-boggling 70%.

CONCLUSIONS

My big take-away from this is that by the point you reach Tier 6, Numenera is no longer a game about characters wandering through inexplicable technological ruins that they are incapable of understanding. The characters are capable of easily creating original pieces of numenera to rival even the most powerful technology of the Ancients and they almost certainly understand many of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos they inhabit.

(And if you’re still looking for a way to calibrate your understanding of the highest tiers, consider this: If a Tier 6 character was actually hyper-focused with Edge 6 (+3), a specialized skill (+2), proper tools (+1), and favorable circumstances (+1) they would consider even tasks that normal people consider “impossible without skill or great effort” to be routine.)

It looks to me like the turning point probably comes somewhere around Tier 4: Tier 1 you’re slightly better than the average person. Tier 2 you’re a highly talented expert (or Big Damn Hero depending on your perspective). Tier 3 is where you hit Legendary status. Tier 4 is where I think you have to start looking at a phase change in the types of stories your characters are getting involved with unless you want to suffer a dissonance with what the mechanics are telling you.

One notable thing to keep in mind, though: Although Numenera rapidly expands the high-end of potential, the low-end of surety doesn’t expand as quickly. The PCs may become incredibly potent demigods by the standards of their age; but they also remain distinctly mortal ones.

Go to Part 1

Continuing my review Hugo nominees this year, I’m tackling the novelettes to day. Ranking them, once again, in reverse order:

6. “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day.

Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.

It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.

Grade: F

5. NO AWARD

4. “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen.

The premise of this story is that cartoon Chinese Communists from 1950s propaganda pamphlets are brought to life, travel through time to the 2030s, and assume control of the future Chinese People’s Republic. Zany hilarity ensues.

… okay, not really. It is, however, the only way I can explain how the anachronistic cartoon Chinese Communists ended up in this story.

If you can look past that bit of nonsense, however, the rest of the story is a decent little bit of pulp adventure: Military space-jockeys with remote control exo-suits have to defend the red, white, and blue of their All-American Space Station(TM) from the terrible scourge of Cartoon Communists.

This clears the “No Award” threshold for me, but just barely. (And I’m having second thoughts about that even as I type this.) It would have benefited tremendously from the solution to the Cartoon Communists being in any way clever or thoughtful or unique.

Grade: C

3. “The Waiting Stars” by Alietta de Bodard.

It was really hard to rank the top three stories in this category. “The Waiting Stars” is a beautiful tone poem of transhumanism mixed with a pleasing tinge of space opera. Of all the Hugo stories I’ve read so far this year, this had the strongest and most interesting and most nuanced handling of its characters. In fact, I think the story would have benefited tremendously from giving the characters a little more room to breathe: A bit too much of the story was pushed into a past-tense summary. I would have preferred to actually experience the growth of the characters instead of being so frequently told about it.

The story was also injured for me because one of its central speculative conceits didn’t quite make enough sense. (Keeping things fairly vague in an effort to avoid explicit spoilers: I buy a culture believing that they would benefit from having their AIs go through that experience. But I’m unclear on why they would build them so large as to be dangerous and painful.)

Those quibbles aside, however, I do recommend this story. And it can be read freely on Alietta de Bodard’s website, so you have no excuse not to!

Grade: B+

2. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Another well-crafted character piece with strongly woven themes. Kowal uses alternate history to evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia and then uses that nostalgia to create a strong empathetic bond between the reader and her protagonist. She then capitalizes on that bond by forcing her character to make tough, complicated choices that Kowal refuses to simplify or trivialize in any way.

Also freely available online.

Grade: B+

1. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang.

My one quibble with “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is that I feel it would benefit from more fully developing its central character arc with the great success that, for example, Kowal does in “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”. The reason it edges out “The Lady Astronaut” to receive my #1 ranking, however, is that Chiang expertly invokes an immensely complicated psychological depth around a near-future technology. What I initially thought was going to be simply a polemical text suddenly drops away into a stunningly fractal depth of expression and thought.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a modern day version of True Names (a fantastic short novel from Vernor Vinge which I’ve reviewed here). But whereas Vinge fired a bold cannon of transhumanism into the heart of the industry, Chiang works subtly within a well-developed theme and pulls out something that feels powerfully and transcendentally real. Reading this story feels like stepping into your life circa 2025. There’s a fervent power to that kind of clear, speculative vision when it is executed with such effortless belief.

And it is also freely available online.

Grade: B+

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 3: Novellas

 

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesMany moons ago I wrote D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations: The point of the article was to re-orient your expectations regarding the level of power being modeled by mid- and high-level D&D characters. (If you think “Conan” when you think about a 15th level character, you’re doing it wrong. Think Hercules in his most powerful persona as a full-blooded demigod.) The article had a few unexpected consequences, but by and large it seems to have helped a lot of people avoid or resolve the dissonance they once experienced between the mechanics of the game and the fantasy they were creating or emulating. We all stopped fighting the system and started embracing all the awesome stuff it was capable of.

Brandon Perry shot me an e-mail recently asking me to give Numenera the same treatment. It sounded like a really fascinating idea for a blog post, so I’m going to take a crack at it. Before I do, though, I want to offer a little bit of a proviso: When I wrote D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations I had nearly 20 years of experience with the game and had played or run hundreds (possibly thousands) of sessions. Although I’ve been playing Numenera since it was released last August, my experience with the game is obviously extremely truncated by comparison (consisting of a couple dozen sessions). So there’s going to be a little more armchair theorizing this time around, with all the risks that sort of thing entails. Take what I have to say with a grain of salt and keep testing it against your actual experience at the gaming table, but hopefully you’ll find some value in what I have to say here.

STATS vs. EFFORT vs. EDGE

Let’s begin with the core attributes of your character in Numenera. These seem to be frequently misunderstood, in no small part because they defy the expectations formed by the norm of other roleplaying games.

For those unfamiliar with it, the basic mechanic of Numenera works like this: The GM sets a difficulty between 0 (Routine) and 10 (Impossible). This number is multiplied by 3 in order to arrive at a target number (between 0 and 30). The player rolls 1d20; if they roll equal to or higher than the target number, they succeed.

For example, if you wanted to climb a Difficult (4) cliff, you’d have to roll 12 or higher on 1d20 (because 4 x 3 = 12).

In practice, however, the difficulty will be modified before the dice are rolled: Each relevant asset or skill the character has will reduce the difficulty by 1. So if a character who was skilled at climbing (-1) and also had their climbing kit with them (-1 for the asset) was facing a Difficult cliff, the effective difficulty would only be 2 and they’d have to roll a 6 or higher on 1d20 to reach the top.

Each PC has three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. Your score in each stat forms a pool and you can spend points from your pool to activate special abilities and also exert effort. When you exert Effort, you spend 3 points from the relevant pool to decrease the difficulty of the task by 1.

So, looking at that Difficult cliff again: You start with difficulty 4, subtract 1 for being skilled in climbing, subtract 1 for having the asset of a climbing kit, and then you could exert effort (spending 3 Might points) to subtract 1 again. (Now the cliff has an effective difficulty of 1 and you only have to roll 3 or higher on 1d20.) As your character advances, you’ll be able to exert multiple levels of effort simultaneously (further reducing the difficulty of a task).

Now, this is the point where most people get confused: Say you’ve got one character with Might 9 and another character with Might 14. Which character is stronger?

Neither.

Primed by other roleplaying games you probably have a natural instinct to think the Might 14 character is stronger. But he’s not. He simply has more endurance when it comes to performing difficult Might-related tasks. (Think about it: If both characters have the same skills and assets, then they’re facing the same probability of success. They are both equally capable of applying effort to any given Might roll. The only difference is that one of them will be able to apply effort to more Might rolls: He’ll win in a competition of endurance, but it’s a 50-50 split for any individual feat of strength.)

So stat pools are not the same thing as a typical RPG ability score. To find something like those in Numenera, you need to look at Edge.

In addition to having a pool in each stat, characters in Numenera also have an edge in the stat. For example, a beginning glaive has Might Edge 1, Speed Edge 1, and Intellect Edge 0. You use edge to reduce the cost of any associated pool expenditures. (So, for example, if you had a Might Edge of 1, you would spend 2 points to apply Effort to a Might roll instead of 3 points.) What this mechanic means is that a character with a Might Edge of 1 is stronger than a character with Might Edge of 0.

If this distinction is confusing you, think of it like this: When you get a Might Edge of 3, you can now apply Effort for free. That means you are just automatically 15% more likely to succeed at anything you do that’s related to Might. (Which means that you’re stronger.)

It should be noted that the range of potential Edges in Numenera is fairly small: The theoretical maximum is 0 to 6, and 0 to 4 is probably more likely in actual practice. (And you’ll only see those ranges with higher tier characters.) So, at most, characters are going to vary 20-30% based on their “ability scores”.

EFFORT AS CALIBRATOR

 The difficulty table in Numenera does a pretty good job of calibrating your expectations for a normal person:

DIFFICULTY / NPC LEVEL
DESCRIPTION
TARGET #GUIDANCE
0
Routine
0
Anyone can do this basically every time
1
Simple
3
Most people can do this most of the time
2
Standard
6
Typical task requiring focus, but most people can usually do this
3
Demanding
9
Requires full attention, most people have a 50/50 chance to succeed
4
Difficult
12
Trained people have a 50/50 chance to succeed
5
Challenging
15
Even trained people often fail
6
Intimidating
18
Normal people almost never succeed
7
Formidable
21
Impossible without skills or great effort
8
Heroic
24
A task worthy of tales told for years afterward
9
Immortal
27
A task worthy of legends that last for lifetimes
10
Impossible
30
A task that normal humans couldn't consider (but doesn't break the laws of physics)

All the guidelines there pretty clearly flow from the underlying math (which is straightforward because the system is just 1d20 vs. the target number): Routine tasks can be achieved every time (unless adverse circumstances push the difficulty up) because you’ll always roll higher than 0 on a d20. Difficult tasks have a 50/50 chance for trained characters because the skill drops the difficultly level by 1 (and math does the rest).

The key breakpoint on the chart is between Intimidating tasks and Formidable tasks, because that’s the point where you need to be either skilled or spend effort to have any chance of success (and the chart says exactly that).

Where I quibble with the chart a little bit is the Heroic level: It claims that these are “tasks worthy of tales told for years afterward”. But a character with skill specialization (-2 difficulty) expending a couple levels of effort (-2 difficulty) would actually have a 45% chance of success. That’s definitely impressive and probably the sort of thing you’d tell your friends about for a couple of days if you saw somebody do it, but it’s probably not going to be talked about for years.

Long story short: I’d bump the descriptions of Heroic, Immortal, and Impossible actions all up a slot or two.

The point, though, is that if you’re looking for the upper limit of what a character is capable of, then the maximum level of effort they can expend (which is generally equal to their tier) is a good indicator.

In general, the absolute best an unskilled character can do is difficulty 6 + their effort. Skills top out at specialized (-2 difficulty), so highly skilled characters will top out at difficulty 8 + their effort. In proper conditions and with proper equipment (i.e., with a couple of assets under their belt), it actually ends up being 10 + their effort.

(That, coincidentally, means that even beginning characters can line things up to make difficulty 10 tasks achievable. Which is another reason why the concept of “Impossible” should probably be bumped up a level or two on that table.)

EDGE AS CALIBRATOR

What you also want to calibrate, however, is the other end of your scale: What do your characters consider routine? (In fact, I generally find this a lot more useful in terms of really conceptualizing what life is like for a particular character.)

For that, we want to look at edge.

In a purely theoretical sense, Edge 3 and Edge 5 are the magic numbers where the first and second levels of effort become completely free and the difficulty for any related task is usually going to automatically drop.

In actual practice, however, I’ve found that once effort only costs 1 pool point the threshold for ubiquitous “impulse purchasing” seems to be reached: Players will start liberally using effort on pretty much every die roll (and they can generally get away with it). That means that the real thresholds to look at are Edge 2 and Edge 4.

In other words, an untrained character will consider tasks with a difficulty equal to one-half their Edge routine. (Of course, you should also adjust this difficulty for their skills and assets.)

These numbers don’t hold up if your Edge radically outpaces your maximum Effort (it doesn’t matter how cheap it is to spend the points if you’re not allowed to spend the points). This is theoretically possible due to the flexible advancement mechanics, but incredibly unlikely in practice.

SKILLS AND TOUCHSTONES

One thing to get a feel for in Numenera is that most of the ratings in the system cover a fairly broad range. (This is deliberate. Phrases like “precision isn’t that important” and “precision isn’t necessary” are sprinkled liberally throughout the rulebook.) This is also true when it comes to skills, with the system only distinguishing between three levels of training – untrained, trained, and specialized. Each of those skill levels must be covering a lot of territory and, upon closer inspection, it’s also notable that “untrained” is something of a misnomer because even untrained characters can succeed on challenging and even intimidating tasks with a fair amount of regularity if they apply a little effort and preparation.

PCs will only get a handful of skills in Numenera, but this isn’t because they’re ignorant louts: The game is actually assuming that characters have a very broad and pervasive competency across the board and only highlights the stuff they’re really, really good at. (This also fits the other elements of the system: As characters increase in tier their Effort improves across the board, which means their maximum possible performance improves in everything. Edge focuses the regularity of their performance and skills refine that focus even further.)

In trying to really peg what skill performance means in Numenera, however, the generalized flexibility of the system occludes things a bit. Unlike D&D, Numenera doesn’t give a lot of difficulty guidelines outside of the primary difficulty table described above. In practical terms, we’re basically limited to crafting items, climbing, and remembering/understanding particular pieces of knowledge.

Limited although they may be, I will use these guidelines as touchstones in the calibration discussions. If you want to see the tabular breakdowns for these difficulties, you can find them on my Numenera system cheat sheet.

Go to Part 2: Comparing the Tiers

Hugo AwardNot sure how many of these I’ll get to this year before the July 31st voting deadline, but for the first time ever I’m a member of the World Science Fiction Convention and, therefore, eligible to vote on the Hugo Awards. I’m taking this fairly seriously and making an effort to actually survey all of the nominees before casting my ballot. And I thought I’d also take the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

We’re going to start with the short stories. Reviewing short stories is a tough gig because it’s really hard to comment meaningfully upon them without spoiling them entirely, but I’ll do the best I can to walk the tightrope here. Without further ado, here’s my voting slate for the Short Story category in reverse order:

5. “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky.

Despite the use of the word “dinosaur” in the title (and its frequent use throughout the text), this is not actually a work of speculative fiction. I’m not really sure the story is award worthy even if it were speculative fiction (it’s a decent little “shocker” story with a twist reveal, but while the prose builds nicely the twist is more of a straight line and there’s nothing of real substance here), but since I consider the Hugo Award to be something exclusively for speculative fiction I’m definitely forced to rank this one below…

4. NO AWARD

3. “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu.

This story starts out really strong, but then somehow ends up in the same place that Swirsky’s story does: It really stops being an SF story and simply becomes a really good piece of character fiction.

The central conceit of the story is found in its title: One day the world changes and every time you tell a lie a bunch of water falls on you. The general implications of this suddenly universal truth detector are lightly touched on (with occasionally inconsistent metaphysics), but Chu’s primary interest in the first chunk of the story is exploring how this dynamic would completely transform interpersonal relationships. And he does a very, very good job of it: It’s one of the rare pleasures of SF to see fantastic character dramas that are impossible in the real world. (The exploration of the alien in human form often makes me reflect on the bizarre fantasies the dramas of our contemporary lives would be to someone living in, say, Elizabethan England.)

Unfortunately, the back half of the story largely falls apart: The titular water becomes functionally meaningless and the character drama resolves into the sort of cliche I would expect to see in a freshmen composition course. Particularly crippling is that the story structures itself entirely around a challenge faced by the main character… which turns out not to be a challenge at all. (He faces no internal conflict; his external conflict turns out to have literally no ability to oppose him; and the ideology he thought was opposing him is revealed to have never existed in the first place.)

This one is worth reading, although the failure to live up to its promise is crushingly disappointing.

2. “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

This pleasant little romp is a Thai version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood with a fantasy twist.

That particular blend of imagery may be too esoteric for anyone but me to really appreciate, but it’s actually quite difficult to talk about “The Ink Readers” without spoiling it. What I can say is that I was very pleased to see Heuvelt not only posit an interesting conceit for his speculative fiction, but to then develop the consequences of that conceit in multiple, creative, and increasingly speculative ways. (The revelation of what the titular Ink Readers were was the moment when the story won me over.)

With that being said, the story strives to achieve mysticism through incoherence and that’s not a genre technique that I’m particularly fond of. The plot of the entire story also depends almost entirely upon a glaringly huge continuity error, which I have occasionally gathered to be an acceptable foible in the sort of magical realism which Heuvelt appears to be pursuing but which I find intolerable. Although I , once again, recommend the story these reservations knock it back a pace for me.

1. “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” by Sofia Samatar.

I’ll be honest in saying that “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” did not blow me away: But it takes a singular conceit and uses it to transform interpersonal relationships like Chu’s “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” (but follows it through to the end of the story). It uses a speculative conceit as metaphor for character growth and pain like Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” (but doesn’t leave the metaphor strictly as metaphor). And it also takes its conceit and improvises on it like a jazz theme (albeit not to the same richness or cleverness as Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”).

It’s a complete package and I’m comfortable saying that it should win the award this year.

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 2: Novelettes

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