The Alexandrian

This is just a naked plea for assistance: I need additional space in my Dropbox account and I can get it if 30 people who don’t currently use Dropbox to follow this referral link, set up a Dropbox account, and install their app (if you don’t install the app, I don’t get the credit):

Once you’ve done that, you can delete the app if you’d like.

Dropbox accounts are pretty nifty, though, if you use multiple devices. I use mine to maintain a library of RPG reference material and prep material so that I can access the rulebooks and scenario materials for my current campaign regardless of whether I’m on my computer, my tablet, or my phone. I need the extra space because some limited term promotional space I got from my cellphone manufacturer came to an end over the weekend.

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesThe design ethos of Numenera is focused on providing the GM with a strong mechanical structure for making rulings while keeping those mechanics minimal so that he GM is free to make those rulings. That, all by itself, pretty much lands the system right in the middle of my sweet spot. But what really elevates the game to the next level – the thing that really makes it shine – is the GM intrusion mechanic.

Which is why it’s unfortunate that I’ve seen so many GMs struggling to grok the mechanic.

I understand where they’re coming from: I was skeptical about intrusions, too, until I saw them in actual play. They’re an unusual tool and it may break some of the expectations you have as a result of how RPGs typically work, but based on my experience it will be well worth your time to embrace them.


For those not already familiar with Numenera, here’s a brief overview of how the mechanic works: The GM announces that they are making an intrusion and hands the player whose PC is the primary target of that intrusion 2 XP. That player can either spend 1 XP they already have to cancel the intrusion (returning the 2 XP to the GM) or they can accept the intrusion, take 1 XP for themselves, and give 1 XP to another player.

The core functionality of the GM intrusion is that it allows you to make things worse than the mechanics of the game would normally suggest. An easy example is having a PC drop their weapon: If you’re playing a game that doesn’t have an explicit fumble mechanic for that, it would be really unusual for a GM to announce that this happens on a failed attack roll. It would be even more unusual for a GM to decide that it happens on a successful attack.

But that’s what the GM intrusion allows you to do: You thought it would be cool for the PC to hit the mammoth-saur with his axe so hard that the axe got stuck in the creature’s thick hide and wrenched out of his hands. In any other game, this would usually cause the players to disconnect from the game world and be wrenched into the metagame because the GM is “breaking the rules”. But the GM intrusion mechanic not only lubricates this interaction (allowing the player to stay focused on the game world), it also includes a feedback mechanic by which the player can say “no, you’ve gone too far, I reject the intrusion”.


Some of you may now be pointing your finger in horror and crying out, “Dissociated mechanic!” And, yes, that’s true. The mechanics of XP spending in Numenera is very similar to the use of fate/luck points in other systems and they’re tied directly into the intrusion mechanic.

But as I’ve mentioned many times in the past (and, most notably, in the Brief Primer on Dissociated Mechanics), it’s not the end of the world for an RPG to include some dissociated mechanics as long as those mechanics are providing a valuable function.

In the case of GM intrusions, the function of liberating the GM to take huge creative risks while being “protected” by a safety net which allows the players to seamlessly rein them in if they go too far is absurdly valuable.

It should also be noted, for those who are particularly allergic to dissociated mechanics, that GM intrusions are incredibly flexible tools which are used entirely at the GM’s discretion: You can use them all the time, you can use them rarely, or you can use them never. More importantly, the nature of each intrusion is entirely up to you. That means you can make them as associated or dissociated as you want: It’s very trivial, for example, to only use intrusions which a PC could avoid or negate through the actions they take.


This ties into something that’s really important to understand about GM intrusions:

The primary purpose of an intrusion is NOT to punish the players.

Intrusions are actually doing the exact opposite of that. In fact, if you’ve ever had the experience of having a really cool idea (like a character’s axe getting stuck in their opponent) and then rejecting it because it’s kind of a bullshit move and it feels unnecessarily punitive to your players… well, GM intrusion greases the wheel for it.

But intrusions aren’t just a method of injecting awesome into your campaign. Of equal importance is their other primary function:

Use GM intrusions to handle outright shortcomings in the rules.

Rather than provide laborious technical detail, Numenera trusts the GM to make specific rulings from generic guidelines. But it also realizes that useful abstractions can frequently give rise to illogical situations when applied to the details of specific situations: GM intrusions provide a useful omnitool for restoring logic.

An example given in the rulebook is a PC who decides to turn his back on an armed opponent in order to raise a ladder into position: According to a strict interpretation of the rules, there’s no reason that the PC can’t do that (he has initiative and so he takes and completes his action before the NPC). The GM, however, recognizes that this doesn’t make sense in the specific context of the action being proposed, so he uses a GM intrusion to give the NPC a free attack on the PC.

Couldn’t the game have included a full suite of mechanics for “attacks of opportunity” or something like that? Sure. But what do you do about the next corner case? And the next one after that? Just keep adding more rules? Pretty soon you end up with a rulebook that looks like Shadowrun 5th Edition. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but Numenera is giving you a different way of dealing with the problem.


Because GM intrusions are such a flexible tool, they can also be used as a narrative control mechanic. What’s interesting about their use in this context is that the GM is still the ultimate arbiter of when the intrusions will be used, which means that the GM can run a very traditional game while opening up specific arenas within the game world for negotiation.

An example frequently used in the Numenera rulebook is the appearance of unexpected reinforcements: The GM uses an intrusion and two more chirogs drop out of the leafy canopy above you!

Let’s break down the options here:

  1. The GM could decide NOT to have any reinforcements up.
  2. The GM could decide that the two chirogs are DEFINITELY there and the players have no say about it.
  3. The GM could decide that the two chirogs MIGHT be there and use a GM intrusion to negotiate their arrival with the players.

A purely traditional RPG only offers the first two options (and those options still exist in Numenera); but the intrusion mechanic offers the third.

And this third option – the narrative control option – can really be pushed even further than the rulebook takes it: Any element of the game world that you’re willing to open up to negotiation with your players can be slickly handled through the simple interface of the intrusion. Is their best friend secretly betraying them? Has the king been replaced by a technological doppelganger? Are the rat things actually friendly and misunderstood (instead of vile and evil)?

As these examples also demonstrate, it’s not necessary to think of an intrusion as a singular point in time, either: They can have wide-ranging and irrevocable implications for the future. Or, alternatively, seamlessly retcon the past with terrible revelations.


Perhaps the most common use of the GM intrusion at my table is the “uber-fumble”: Wow, it sucks that you failed that check. Here, lemme make it a little bit worse for you.

Cranial Slugs: Not Even OnceNotable examples from my last few sessions include:

  • You try to dodge out of the way of the club, but you duck the wrong way. It slams into your chest, lifts your from your feet, and sends you hurtling backwards… directly through the dimensional rift.
  • The psychic assault emanating from the cranial slugs burrowing into your skull suddenly forms a horrific neural net that short circuits through your synapses. Take 3 Intellect damage… and the creature has taken spastic control of your limbs. You’ll attack Sheera next round.
  • Your razor wing hurtles towards his face, but his hand snaps up with lightning speed, snatches it from the air, and whips it back towards you. Give me a Speed defense check.

I find that these moments provide spikes of intensity and interest that can break up the normal cycle of a combat: Whenever the pace of an encounter seems to be lagging or has settled into a predictable cycle, the use of an intrusion immediately shakes things up. (Using unusual actions and events during a combat encounter is just good advice in general, of course, but intrusions really let you dial the intensity up to 11.)

One of the unique ways you can leverage intrusions to accomplish this, however, is by merely threatening the intrusion before the dice are rolled. This technique is particularly effective if you’re using the Numenera XP cards: As the player prepares for the roll, simply grab two XP cards and hold them up for the table to see. The message is clear: If Heather fails her roll, something extra horrible is going to happen.

This is a form of metagame special effect: By raising the stakes of the roll, you focus the table’s attention and passion on the die roll. This works particularly well in Numenera because the modifiers to a task are all applied to the difficulty: By the time you roll the dice, you know exactly what number needs to appear on the face of the die for success. When the die lands, there is an immediate and explosive release of all the tension built into that roll (one way or the other).


The Numenera core rulebook recommends one GM intrusion per player per session.

If that works for you, great. In practice, though, I’ve found that I’m using them about three times more frequently than that. I don’t really have a specific goal of using X number of intrusions per session, of course. I just use them when it feels right (which usually means whenever I’ve got a good idea).

By the same token, you don’t want to overuse your intrusions, either. Only use an intrusion if you’ve got a really awesome (or really horrible) idea. You want your intrusions to mean something.

The other thing you should be cautious of if you find yourself using lots of intrusions is the accumulation of XP: If your players are frequently spending XP to reroll dice, purchase short-term benefits, and the like you probably won’t run into any problems. If you end up with a table which is consciously hoarding their XP and refuse to spend it on anything except character advancement then plenteous intrusions can make the problem worse.

(In general, though, hoarding XP in Numenera produces a sub-optimal experience in any case. So you should try to figure out how to get your players to use XP in the way the game intends: That might mean that you should be doing a better job of offering awesome short-term benefits to encourage XP expenditures. Or it might just mean talking to your players and making sure they understand the opportunities they’re passing up. Or, as the rulebook suggests as an alternative solution, you could also just impose a ratio of short-to-long-term XP expenditures.)


The final word of caution I would give about the use of intrusions is this: Don’t negate success.

The rulebook talks about using intrusions in order to force a task check even when the character would normally succeed automatically. In my opinion, such intrusions should be used very sparingly. And what you should never do is take a successful die roll and turn it into a failure. It’s cheap and it’s frustrating.

To be clear: It’s okay to complicate success. Just don’t negate it.

If their sword gets stuck in the mammoth-saur, the mammoth-saur still gets hurt. If they shoot the rope holding up the numenera device creating an interdimensional portal, the device still falls (even if the intrusion reveals that it’s going to fall on top of them). If they succeeded in following the bad guy’s tracks, they still succeed in finding the bad guy (it just turns out he’s laid an ambush for them). And so forth.

I suppose this can probably be broadened into a general principle:

Your players should hate your intrusions, but they should love to hate them.

Numenera XP Cards - Monte Cook Games

Sertorius: Beneath the Banshee Tree - Bedrock GamesBrendan Davis sent me review copies of the Sertorius roleplaying game and the Beneath the Banshee Tree scenario for the game because my Three Clue Rule was name-dropped and used in the latter.

To be perfectly honest, when Brendan sent me the PDF for Sertorius I gave it a quick glance, saw it was yet another 500 page fantasy roleplaying game, and threw the PDF metaphorically onto the stack of Things I Will Probably Never Get the Time to Look At(TM). But I’m always interested in good mystery scenarios and when I cracked open Beneath the Banshee Tree, it did exactly what good adventure scenarios are supposed to do: It got me really intrigued about this setting and this game.

I still haven’t really delved into Sertorius, but I have taken a slightly closer look: It’s a game where everyone plays a powerful sorcerer in a land where sorcerers are god-kings and potentates. As your power grows, you attract followers and slowly shift from a mortal to a divine existence. So, basically, Ars Magica if your characters were powerful Sumerian demigods instead of scholars hiding in the dark woods of the Europe.

Whether Sertorius sounds interesting to you or not, I recommend checking out Beneath the Banshee Tree: First, it’s free. Second, it could easily be adapted to a lot of different fantasy settings (while likely bringing with it a few unique stamps that will only serve to enhance the experience). Third, it’s really good.

Davis uses a very clever, randomized structure to drive a serial killer-esque investigative scenario in which even the PCs can become targets. Structurally, the adventure is clever because each additional crime scene brings additional clues that, generally, point towards the villain’s accomplices (providing a second layer of redundant investigation that makes sure the scenario remains robust and interesting no matter how it plays out).

Conceptually, however, Beneath the Banshee Tree is captivating: The “serial killer” isn’t actually a killer. (Most of the time, anyways.) Instead, Davis has created a fiendishly clever crime that’s uniquely fantastical and only possible in a land of wonder and magic. I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil it: Check it out.

(Remember, it’s free. It also contains an entire fantasy city that you can easily grab and use in any number of nifty ways. Seriously, why are you still reading this when you should be reading that?)

Eclipse Phase - Posthuman StudiosA quick review for those unfamiliar with the Eclipse Phase system: It’s a percentile system where you need to roll equal to or under your skill level in order to succeed. If your roll a success, your margin of success is equal to the number you rolled on the dice. If you roll a failure, your margin of failure is equal to the number you rolled minus your skill level.

(So if your Fray skill is 45 and you roll 27, your margin of success is 27. If you roll 89, your margin of failure is 89 – 45 = 44.)

Playing Eclipse Phase at Gencon this year, I noticed once again the difficulty some people have grokking this method of “calculating” margin of success. Part of the problem is that it’s discordant with how venerable percentile systems like Call of Cthulhu calculate margin of success (by subtracting the number you rolled from your skill rating). And part of the problem is that Eclipse Phase actually swapped methods between subtracting numbers and reading the die roll between printings. (The post-Catalyst Labs versions of the game should really have been clearly labeled a Revised Edition, frankly.)

But laying all of that aside, the huge advantage of the “read the die” method of calculating margin of success is that it completely eliminates calculation at the table when calculating margin of success: All you have to do is look at the dice. When you can get everyone to grok that (and to report their rolls as “XX out of YY” instead of just “succcess”) it makes the game run with incredible smoothness. (Margins of failure still require calculation, but the system doesn’t use them nearly as often.)

Having concluded that there’s a huge upside to calculating margin of success like this, without further ado I present several different conceptual frameworks that can help you (or someone else) grok the concept:

  • Success starts at 00 and grows from there, so the higher you roll the better your success (assuming that you succeed).
  • It’s like blackjack: You want to get as close to your target number as possible without going over.
  • It’s like The Price is Right: The dice are naming a price and you want that price to be as close to the actual price (i.e., your skill rating) as possible.
  • Your skill rating is like a gravity well: Successes start far away at 00, but the closer they get to your gravity well the faster they go and the bigger the explosion when you punch that guy in the face.

(For some reason face punching always features heavily whenever I’m teaching a new system to people.)


Okay, now that you’ve grokked how Eclipse Phase does margins of succcess, let me strain your credibility by proposing a similar method for handling margin of failure in the system. (This is really just a random thought that occurred to me as I was writing out the above.)

The key point here is that the system (a) rarely cares about margin of failure and (b) when it does, it only cares if you missed by either 30 points or 60 points. (The former are referred to as “severe failures” and in my system cheat sheet I refer to the latter as “horrific failures”, although I don’t believe the rulebook ever gives a formal term for them.)

So the method here is really simple:

  • A roll of 70 or less is a severe failure
  • A roll of 40 or less is a horrific failure.

The system also has a handful of effects which are determined “per 10 margin of failure”. (For example, shock damage can knock you unconscious for 1 round per 10 MoF.) To calculate that, simply subtract the tens digit of your result from 9. (So if you roll 77, you would be shocked for 9 – 7 = 2 rounds.)

If you’re looking for a conceptual framework, think of failure as emanating from 99 and growing in magnitude. Note, too, that higher is always better with this system: A higher success is a better success; a higher failure is a better failure. What my mind initially tries to interpret as a discontinuity actually makes sense if you just imagine success and failure emanating from opposite ends of the spectrum while the outcome is a linear comparison to your skill rating.

Gencon 2014 - The Best Four Days in Gaming

I mentioned a couple days ago that I’d just returned from Gencon and a few people asked me to talk a little bit about my experiences there. As I mentioned, I ran 5 games and played in 4:

  • Numenera: Into the Violet Vale (ran 3 sessions)
  • The Strange: Eschatology Code (ran 2 sessions)
  • Cthulhu Masters Tournament (played in 2 rounds)
  • Eclipse Phase: Detente
  • Eclipse Phase: Overrun

This was more intense but considerably less varied than last year, when I played in 6 games (including Call of Cthulhu, Lady Blackbird, Eclipse Phase, Shab-al-Hiri Roach, and Numenera).

The sessions of Numenera and The Strange I ran were actually the very first con games I’ve ever run. And I made a very conscious decision to jump in with both feet by signing up to run two sessions of each. What I wasn’t anticipating was that this would, in turn, lead to a very intense pre-con experience, too: I didn’t receive the scenarios I was running from Monte Cook Games until August 2nd, which meant I had less than two weeks to read them, prep them, and playtest them. (I ended up running two playtest sessions of The Strange: Eschatology Code and one session of Numenera: Into the Violet Vale with various assortments of my local players.) The core rulebook for The Strange was also just released and so I found myself having to run the game without actually having read the core rulebook yet. (I actually still haven’t finished the core rulebook.)

The Strange - Bruce Cordell and Monte CookTHURSDAY MORNING SURPRISE: I was supposed to launch my Gencon experience by playing in an 8 AM game of Numenera run by an independent GM unassociated with the official MCG events. I haven’t had much of a chance to actually play the game since last Gencon and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the GM was a no-show. That meant that I was sitting at a table in the Marriott with four players who were all desperate to try out this awesome game. Meanwhile, right next door at the JW Marriott, I had all my supplies for running Into the Violet Vale.

Well… you can guess what happened next. We headed over to the JW Marriott’s bar, sat in comfy chairs, and I inaugurated my experience of GMing at con twelve hours earlier than I was anticipating. The session, albeit somewhat abbreviated on time, proceeded fabulously. (This was followed by a desperate scramble to print out new character sheets for the scenario so that I would have enough for my official games. Fortunately, the JW Marriott has a FedEx store on the second floor.)

THE STRANGE: Since Gencon last year, Numenera has rapidly dominated my roleplaying, displacing D&D 3.5 as my most played game. I am just as excited about The Strange. I talked more about it over here, but the short version is this: If you’ve dismissed this as just a simple “dimension hopping” game, take the time to give it a second look. It’s doing some really interesting and unqiue stuff within the genre.

I will also say that Eschatology Code, the scenario Bruce Cordell wrote for Gencon, is simply fantastic. It has certain limitations as a scenario for home play (although it would be a strong way to kick off a campaign), but it’s one of the tightest and most effective convention scenarios I’ve had the pleasure to see. No spoilers, but if you get a chance to play it, I recommend seizing the opportunity.

ECLIPSE PHASE: I’m a huge fan of Eclipse Phase and my experiences with their games this year were great. I had some confusion with my schedule (Google Calendars shifted the times of all my events when I switched time zones heading into Indianapolis) and I ended up being an hour late for the first scenario. After apologizing profusely for being an unintentional jackass, however, I settled into a really nifty scenario involving multiple factions fighting over control of one of the Pandora Gates. Midway through the scenario I had a Crowning Moment of Awesome(TM) and actually got a round of applause at the end of the session for it. Woot!

(During the convention I also got two rounds of applause while GMing, one after pulling a back-to-back doubleheader of Numenera and ThStrange that lasted until midnight on Friday.

CTHULHU MASTERS TOURNAMENT: This was my second year participating in the Cthulhu Masters Tournament and this year (after fleeing a Hound of Tindalos during the Fall of Saigon in a very memorable scenario where they actually built a helicopter for use to roleplay in) I advanced to the second round. This tournament is really fabulous and the caliber of players it attracts is simply marvelous.

THE LOOT: The two Gencon acquisitions I’m most excited about are Run, Fight, or Die and Level 7: Invasion. (The Strange would also be on the list, but I kickstarted it and received the rulebook a couple weeks earlier.)

Run, Fight, or Die - Richard Launius

Run, Fight, or Die was designed by Richard Launius (of Arkham Horror fame). I first glanced at it many moons ago when it was being kickstarted, but the pitch for the game was basically “King of Tokyo with zombies” and my response to that was, “Meh.” (As it is with pretty much all “it’s X plus zombies!” pitches.) But I slid into a demo game on the con floor and really, really enjoyed the game: The central keep-and-roll mechanic is similar to King of Tokyo, but that’s where the similarity ends: Run, Fight, or Die features immediate punishment for pushing your luck, which adds an extra dynamic of risk to the standard procedure or looking for the most favorable combination. The combinations themselves are actually progressive in interestingly discontinuous ways, which means that you can actually end up shooting past your desired result. Finally, the central conflict of the game — in which hordes of zombies move closer and closer towards you — creates a rich tactical environment in which you have to balance and choose between short-term and long-term consequences.

The whole package is just fabulous. I’ve played it a dozen times since getting home from Gencon and I’m pretty firmly convinced that it’s going to be a huge hit at my Game Night parties.

Level 7: Invasion - Privateer Press

I haven’t actually had a chance to play Level 7: Invasion yet, so I really can’t pass any kind of judgment or provide any kind of insight about it. But I’m a huge fan of Level 7: Escape and Level 7: Omega Protocol. The progressive storytelling in the series evolving through radically different types of games (Level 7: Escape is a co-op ‘crawler, Level 7: Omega Protocol is a players-vs-masters tactical combat game, and Level 7: Invasion is a geopolitical wargame) is really fascinating to me.




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