The Alexandrian

Weird Discoveries is a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera. The concept behind these instant adventures is basically what I talked about in Opening Your Gaming Table. I’ll let Monte Cook explain:Numenera: Weird Discoveries - Monte Cook

It’s Friday night. Your friends have gathered at your house. Someone asks, “What should we do tonight?” One person suggests watching a movie, but everyone else is in the mood for a game. You’ve got lots of board games, and that seems like the obvious solution, because they don’t take any more time to prepare than it takes to set up the board and the pieces.

Those of us who love roleplaying games have encountered this situation a thousand times. We’d love to suggest an RPG for the evening, but everyone knows you can’t just spontaneously play a roleplaying game, right? The game master has to prepare a scenario, the players need to create characters, and all this takes a lot of time and thought.

Cook’s solution to this problem is to create one-shot scenarios in a custom format that makes it possible for the GM to run a four hour session after quickly skimming 4-6 pages of information.

This basically boils down into three parts:

First, a two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.

Second, a two page spread that generally looks something like this

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

and which contains the entire scenario. (This two page spread is the only thing you’ll need to look at while running the adventure.)

Third, an additional two pages of additional details that you can use to flesh out the scenario. (These pages are optional. If you don’t have time to read them, the evocative details they provide can easily be replaced by material improvised by the GM.)

The basic idea is that these scenarios give Numenera the same commitment profile as a board game: You pull out the rulebooks and dice. You quickly explain the rules. You hand out pregen characters to the players. And while they’re looking over their character sheets, you spend two or three minutes quickly reviewing a scenario.

Then you play for three or four hours and… that’s it. No prior prep commitment. No long-term commitment from the players. Just pick it up and play it.

WHERE THIS GOES A LITTLE WONKY

First, there’s the weird decision to kick off this book of stand-alone one-shots with two linked scenarios where one is clearly the sequel of the other. (The first scenario is “gaining access to the pyramid” and the second is “exploring the pyramid”.) This isn’t the end of the world and if those had been given at the end of the book as a sort of variant on the form, it probably would have been fine. But one of these scenarios is actually used as the free promo for the book, and I actually held off buying it for awhile because it appeared that the book wasn’t actually delivering on its promise.

Another bit of wonkiness comes from the way that Cook tries to streamline the presentation of the scenarios through the use of Keys. Each Key is some essential element of the scenario which could potentially be found in several different locations within the scenario. Each key is given a symbol, which is then used to indicate the locations where that key can be found.

For example, in a mystery scenario a Key might be:

Evidence that Supect A is innocent.

And that Key might be indicated by a little blue triangle. Then you look at the two page spread and you might see an NPC marked with a blue triangle, and their description will include:

If Bob is the KEY, then if the PCs really grill him, he’ll eventually admit that he saw Suspect A on the opposite side of town at the time of the murder.

In general, you’ll see two or three different places in the scenario where that little blue triangle shows up. That basically mirrors the redundancy suggested by the Three Clue Rule and it makes a lot of sense. And highlighting those essential bits with a visual cue in the form of the Key symbol also makes sense, because it flags the importance of including that bit for the GM.

A couple things mess this up, however: First, the table that tells you what each symbol means ISN’T located on the two page spread. So the simple elegance of the two-page spread is marred because you keep flipping back to that essential information.

Second, the “if” nature of the Keys tends to make it much more difficult to run the scenarios cleanly. The intention seems to be that the GM should control the pacing of when these keys are triggered, but in practice trying to keep track of the locations where a particular key is available (and whether or not this might be the last opportunity for it) requires a totality of understanding for the scenario which stands in sharp contrast with the goal of being able to run it off-the-cuff. (For off-the-cuff stuff, I generally want to be able to focus on the content directly in front of my nose without having to think about distant portions of the scenario.)

In general, you can probably just ignore the “if” portion of the text and run most of the scenarios with the Keys present in all of their potential locations. There are a handful of scenarios, however, where you can’t do this. (For example, a “missing piece” of a machine which can be in several different locations and actually be completely different things.)

In any case, these scenarios would be better if the keys were simply hardcoded. And I’d recommend altering them in whatever manner necessary to make that true before running them.

BAFFLING CARTOGRAPHY

The other thing that doesn’t quite work are, unfortunately, the two-page spreads themselves. These take two forms.

First, there are flowcharts which show how the PCs can move from one scene to another. (Go to the home of the murder suspect and find a clue that points to where the murder suspect is.) These mostly work fine, although there are a few scenarios with mysterious extra arrows that don’t actually represent any tangible information. (The intention with some of these seems to be “the PCs are done here and can now go follow a lead from another location”, but that’s ideographically confusing because the arrow implies that there is a lead here that should take you there.)

Second, and unfortunately more prevalent, are the spreads based around maps surrounded by blobs of text that have arrows pointing to various sections of the map.

The best of these are the dungeons, because they at least make sense. But they’re not very good dungeons. One keeps talking about how you can explore beyond the rooms shown on the map… except there are no exits from the rooms on the map. The other is composed of mostly empty rooms. And in both cases, most of the room descriptions don’t match the visual representation of the room that they’re pointing at.

This is because, as far as I can tell, the maps were drawn largely at random and then the various bits of content were “associated” with the maps by drawing arrows that just kind of point at whatever’s convenient. And this is even more apparent when you look at some of the other two-page spreads. For example, consider the spread we looked at before:

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

That’s supposed to be the map of a city. Except it obviously is not. And one of the content bubbles is “three dead bodies lie here”… except the associated arrow points into the middle of a wall. Another content bubble is “monster that’s explicitly moving around in the ruins”, but it has an arrow pointing to a very specific (and obviously completely meaningless) location

Another common technique here is “rough sketch of a wilderness area that’s radically out of scale with random arrows pointing at it”.

WHY IT DOESN’T MATTER

Because the scenarios are really good.

They cover a wide variety of nifty ideas backed up with fantastic art that’s designed to be shown to your players as evocative handouts (instead of featuring imaginary PCs doing things).

And despite my quibbles with some of the shortcomings of the presentation, the basic concept of the two-page spread fundamentally works: The maps and arrows don’t make any sense, but the essential content is nonetheless packaged in a format that makes it easy to simply pick up the adventure and run it with no prep time at all.

For my personal use, I’ll be basically ignoring all of the maps and using the content bubbles as either random encounters or logical progressions of an investigation (depending on the exigencies of the scenario). And I’ll take the time to lock down the Keys in a more concrete fashion, but I’m not anticipating that taking any more than 5-10 minutes per scenario, which is not an undue burden.

Ultimately, with ten full adventures, this book is incredibly valuable and I’m going to be getting dozens of hours of play out of it.

The final reason why the book’s shortcomings ultimately don’t matter, however, is because the roleplaying industry desperately needs more books like this: The board game renaissance is palpably demonstrating the power of memetically viral games that can be picked up and played as part of an evening’s entertainment. Games like Mice & Mystics and Mansions of Madness clearly demonstrate that the only reason traditional roleplaying games can’t hop on that bandwagon is because we’ve systematically ghettoized ourselves as an industry and as a hobby by embracing long-term, dedicated play as the only form of play.

With Numenera as its flagship, Monte Cook Games is fighting to change that. And I’m more than happy to help them out. (Particularly since their game is so much damn fun.)

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979339

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12 Responses to “Review: Weird Discoveries (Numenera)”

  1. Ste says:

    Sounds like a good idea for a product, but I really have my doubts about the execution. What I’m getting from the review is that I basically have to homerule every single scenario write-up before I gm, because otherwise the book’s format is going to bewilder and confuse me.

    It’s nice that the scenarios are interesting, but is seems like the book is just not fit for the purpose the authors had in mind. Or maybe it’s just not finished?

    I actually get this feeling a lot when I read Numenera materials – it’s always as if the authors didn’t have the time to properly think through what they’re doing and polish the product after they’re done with the first draft. I have this suspicion that Numenera supplements would gain a lot if the authors locked their books in a drawer for a month and then reviewed them again before publishing.

    They could also tell the graphic designers to quit with the freaking arrows already.

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    In general, there are just two things you need to do in order to use the scenarios effectively:

    (1) Ignore the arrows in most of the scenarios and just grab the next scene that makes sense in context.

    (2) Ignore the “IF” statements for the Keys and just liberally include them wherever they show up.

    You’ll notice that the key word here is “ignore”. Most of the time, you’re not really having to do anything. You just have to tune out meaningless material.

    There a few exceptions: The two dungeon maps aren’t great. Both can be used as-is, but a couple minutes of polish would fix ’em both. And then there are a couple of scenarios that require a couple minutes of work to make the “IF” Keys compatible with each other (generally by making the redundant keys

    Compared to most other published adventures I use, this is peanuts. (And it’s infinitely better than all the stuff I don’t use.) It is enough to knock the Substance rating from 5 to 4, but it’s still well worth the $10 for the PDF.

    For example, take a peek at the sample two-page spread in the review. (Or download the free PDF preview that contains that entire adventure.) In terms of “random arrow syndrome” it’s one of the worst example in the book, but in terms of actually running the adventure you:

    – Describe the city underneath the pyramid
    – As the PCs explore the city, describe what they see.
    – When appropriate, trigger one of the scenes (mad woman, reptilian beast, corpses, shiny cylinder, deactivated automaton).

    There’s no additional prep required.

  3. thekelvingreen says:

    So… it’s a book of One Page Dungeons then?

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    Basically. Off-loading the background and hook onto the first two pages, letting the one-page scenario breathe on the spread, and then giving an additional two pages for additional details and follow-up gives the format more room to explore and develop ideas than a strict one-page dungeon does.

    Plus graphical handouts and pregens.

  5. Ste says:

    After reading the free sample I’m liking the whole thing a lot more. I always ended up doing way to much prep for my games and I burned out very quickly when it didn’t actually pay off all that great (it usually didn’t). Maybe this minimal approach would work for me?

    There’s really a lot to love in Numenera, but every time I pitch it to somebody I get a “not-really-my-deal” response. It’s time to act sneaky and hide character sheets under the tablecloth and then invite somebody for tea -_-

    Muehehe.

  6. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    This ‘city in shadow’ is beneath a pyramid or in the pyramid? What is the pyramid?

    Lets have the pyramid levitating above the city…and the monster (automaton?) actually walks on the upside down surface. This allows it to wander about on the ceiling reaching down. The city is thus some mud brick structure on a magneto repelling base built there by primitives. A maze of rooms that once served as homes for families.

  7. Xitoshi says:

    Really interesting, specially as you said to shift from “long-term, dedicated play”.

    Regarding this, would it be possible to make a product that combined your ideas of the open game table or procedural games with this to allow for better replayability?

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @Xitoshi: Definitely.

    A simple example would be a hexcrawl, where each keyed hex would have content that looks a lot like the two-page spreads here. (This is basically what hexes looked like in the notes for my OD&D hexcrawl open table: Information chunked out so that you could quickly process it on-the-fly whenever the PCs decided to go there. Except I also had the occasional larger dungeon complex that wouldn’t conveniently fit on a spread.)

  9. Michael says:

    “…but the essential content is nonetheless packaged in a format that makes it easy to simply pick up the adventure and run it with no prep time at all….”

    I’m okay with one-shots, side treks, one page dungeons and such. They’re fine and I certainly use them.

    But. I keep seeing this tendency of modern games to try to do everything they can to reduce the preparation time for RPGs and it seems horribly misguided to me.

    Because in my experience the more the prep, the better the game.

    Instead of the industry being ‘ashamed’ of that and blaming the rules for it (though I’m certainly in favor of rules-light games) I don’t see why we can’t embrace it as what makes the roleplaying game so much more interesting – almost said ‘immersive’ 😉 – and fun than a board game.

    “The final reason why the book’s shortcomings ultimately don’t matter, however, is because the roleplaying industry desperately needs more books like this:….”

    This is where I fundamentally disagree.

    We have PLENTY of these ‘throw-aways’ and always have. Google “one page dungeon” and you’ll get more than enough of them – for free – to last forever.

    What I’d really LOVE to see more “Traveller Adventure”, “Plot-Point Campaign” (Savage Worlds), “The Enemy Within Campaign” (Warhammer RPG) and even “Temple of Elemental Evil” type products.

    I think maybe Pathfinder is doing something close to that, but I’d love to see it for every game and every genre.

    A “Campaign-In-A-Box” that really, TRULY does all the deep prep work for GM so that even newbie’s could experience a long-form campaign as easily as possible.

    Because the reason (most of us) those who stayed in the hobby for a while was because the long-form campaign has rewards that “one-shots” simply don’t have.

    “….only reason traditional roleplaying games can’t hop on that bandwagon is because we’ve systematically ghettoized ourselves as an industry and as a hobby by embracing long-term, dedicated play as the only form of play.”

    Certainly long-form isn’t the only way to play (Open Table).

    But frankly, I don’t want to play one-shots or convention games or mindless dungeon crawls. I gave that up for a reason – it’s dull.

    All the stories I can tell you about ‘my character’ or games I’ve played were all good and memorable precisely because they were in long form games with good GM’s who did alot of prep work.

    It’s not easy, because it’s not supposed to be.

    I wish there were enough good GM’s out there would appreciate that.

    What do you think?

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    I don’t think this is an either-or situation.

    For example, I just got done running my remix of Eternal Lies. That’s a really great campaign-in-a-box and I added 300+ props, 150+ diorama elements, and 350,000 words of additional prep material. And the result was fabulous. And we did things in that game that would have been impossible to achieve without that level of prep and without a long-term, dedicated engagement from the players.

    But (and this is a very important but) half of the players participating in that campaign were people I started gaming with because I was able to casually invite them to my open table. If didn’t have an RPG option with a low barrier of entry — if I had just played nothing except for my dedicated Ptolus campaign — then that amazing Eternal Lies campaign would never have happened.

    You occasionally see a similar thing in board games: People who like big, complex games that provide lengthy, rich experiences bemoan the existence of casual, shorter games. But those casual, shorter games are how you end up introducing yourself to people who will play those big, complex games with you.

    And, honestly, I’m just not seeing this wholesale rejection of dedicated campaigns as the assumed form of play for traditional roleplaying games that you are. (It’s more prevalent among storytelling games.) Yes, there are a couple corners of the OSR that keep flirting around with it. And there’s this one product for Numenera. And then… well, that’s basically it, AFAIK.

    Campaigns in a box, though? Man, those are everywhere. Numenera already has one. There’s at least a half dozen companies producing them for varieties of D&D. Pelgrane and Chaosium have dozens of them. Modiphius does them. And even if a game doesn’t actually publish a campaign in a box, the rulebooks still make it really clear that long-term, dedicated campaigns are the assumed mode of play.

    And this culture is ingrained pretty deep. For example, I just got done having a discussion over on Reddit where a guy was arguing that Numenera was useless for gaming because its advancement mechanics cap out after 25-30 sessions if you don’t modify them. Now, my long-term D&D campaign has been running for more than 100 sessions, so I can totally understand the appeal of campaigns that run longer than 30 sessions (although I had to modify D&D’s advancement mechanics to do that). But if your minimum threshold for acceptable gaming is a year’s worth of biweekly sessions, requiring 100-120 hours of commitment from every player, then you are cutting yourself off from an incredible number of incredible gaming experiences.

    And if the entire hobby does that, then you are also excluding A LOT of creative people from it. (Including a lot of people who, if they got a casual taste of playing an RPG, would turn into the type of people who would commit 130+ hours to a single campaign.)

    With all that being said, one of the reasons I prefer a more robust structure for open table gaming (instead of just sequences of one-shots) is that it allows for long-term dynamics to emerge. (They’re different than the long-term dynamics of a campaign featuring dedicated players, but they’re nonetheless fascinating and rewarding.) So Weird Discoveries is not the be-all or end-all of casual play, but it does represent an attitude which is desperately missing from traditional roleplaying games right now.

    (Also-also: The book includes suggestions for incorporating these adventures into long-term, dedicated campaigns. So best of both worlds, really.)

  11. Dan Dare says:

    Have you come across the one page dungeon contest : https://www.facebook.com/onepagedungeon

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    I had an adventure win Best Geometry in the first One Page Dungeon Contest: Halls of the Mad Mage

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