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Untested Numenera: NPC Allies

November 19th, 2014

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesNumenera features player-facing mechanics: Whenever an action requires diced resolution, it’s always the player who rolls the dice. If a PC is being attacked, the player rolls to dodge. If the PC is attacking, the player rolls to hit. There are a lot of advantages to this system, particularly in the ways that it seamlessly interacts with the pool-spend, GM intrusion, and difficulty adjustment mechanics.

But the drawback of player-faced mechanics is that they can’t be used to resolve contests between NPCs. Numenera opts for one of two relatively straightforward work-arounds (to be used at the GM’s discretion):

(1) In keeping with other mechanics in the system, the NPC with the highest level automatically succeeds.

(2) If that’s undesirable for some reason, “the GM should designate a player to roll for one of the NPCs. Often, the choice is obvious. For example, a character who has a trained attack animal should roll when her pet attacks enemies.”

The problem with this method is that, because of the way NPC stat blocks and pools work in Numenera, the result doesn’t factor in the NPC’s skill whatsoever: There is no modifier applied to the roll, so an NPC that’s level 2 at attacking has the exact same chance of hitting an NPC opponent as an NPC that has a level 7 attack.

What makes the problem even more vexing is that a large number of character options feature allied NPCs (like the aforementioned trained attack animal).


NPC allies have an effort pool equal to level x 3 per day.

NPC allies also gain one recovery roll per day. This recovery roll can be used as an action at any time, restoring 1d6 + level points to their effort pool.

When rolling for an NPC, adjust the die roll by +1 or -1 per difference in level. For example, a level 5 NPC attempting a level 3 task would gain a +2 bonus to their die roll. The same NPC attempting a level 7 task would suffer a -2 penalty to their die roll.


These rules are short, simple, and to the point. They present a minor disruption to the purely player-faced mechanics, but without bulking out an NPC to have the same complexity as a PC. (In terms of utility, it’s particularly important that the mechanics don’t actually require a specialized NPC stat block: The effort pool can be easily derived from any existing NPC or creature.)

In actual play, the addition of the effort pool provides just enough interest to make running an NPC ally interesting while the level adjustment to the die roll for NPC vs. NPC actions provides enough distinction between characters that their interactions don’t feel flat or artificial.

These rules can be found in the “House Rules” section of my Numenera system cheat sheet.

Big Hero 6 - DisneyThe first thing to say about Big Hero 6 is that it’s a ton of fun wrapped in a beautiful aesthetic surrounding well-earned emotional heartaches and catharsis. If you’re the type of geek who’s likely to be reading this website, then you’re probably going to adore this film.

With that being said, I was interested in the way that Big Hero 6 failed to be an ensemble movie: It comes very, very close (featuring a diversity of interesting characters in supporting roles), but ultimately misses the opportunity. (And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the film, which instead succeeds very well at being a film about its protagonist.)

I found myself making an easy comparison to The Incredibles, which is many ways a completely different movie but which also features the formation of a team of superheroes. But whereas Big Hero 6 just misses being an ensemble piece, The Incredibles is a very successful ensemble piece.

The key distinction here is that all four main characters in The Incredibles are fully developed while each possessing a full narrative arc (which is also connected to the overall narrative arc of the ensemble). This is contrasted to Big Hero 6 where all five members of the team are given unique personalities and great dialogue… but notably lack fully developed arcs.

The reason I bring this up is that I noticed that a key difference between the films is that The Incredibles featured multiple sequences in which the main characters are separated from each other, whereas Big Hero 6 basically did not.

So what I’m saying here is:


Because it’s a really effective way to allow individual characters to develop identities separate from the group identity. (Which will, ironically, enrich the group identity.)

(More on splitting the party over here.)

The problem with GURPS-style advantage/disadvantage character creation systems is that the actual impact of a given advantage or disadvantage is highly dependent on the circumstances of actual play: “Immune to psionic attacks” is totally amazing if your campaign is The War Against the Illithids; it’s completely wasted if your character never encounters a psion. Similarly, “Horrifically Claustrophobic” is a crippling disadvantage in a megadungeon campaign; it’s basically a non-factor if you’re playing Lawrence of Arabia.

So in order for these systems to work, the advantages and disadvantages need to be made equally relevant in actual play.

IME, however, there are two typical actual play dynamics in RPGs:

First, the players are given a free rein. Players will naturally seek to play to their advantages and play away from their disadvantages. This isn’t even really abusive play: It’s just a logical way of interacting with the world. (If I had no legs, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time buying ladders.)

Second, the GM is railroading the players. You might initially expect this to reverse the dynamic, but it typically doesn’t because (again, IME) most railroading GMs are more focused on achieving a predetermined goal: Their focus is an internal one. It might inadvertently force players into confronting their disadvantages, but often will not. (While the players will still be able to tactically exploit their advantages.)

In order for an advantage/disadvantage system to really work, IMO, you need a GM who’s willing to advocate as strongly for the inclusion of a PC’s disadvantage as the player is to advocate for the inclusion of the PC’s advantage.

The GMs most willing to do this are (in terms of the Threefold) dramatists and gamists. Simulationists are much less likely to put their thumb on the scale and “force” the inclusion of disadvantages.

This becomes a particular problem for GURPS because most the features in that system are heavily focused on supporting simulationists: So the people most likely to be running GURPS are the ones least likely to adopt the GMing techniques necessary to keep the advantage/disadvantage system balanced.

In a thread on the RPGsite (see post #15), Barbatruc proposes an interesting method for tracking torches and lanterns. He later mentions being inspired by Intwischa’s method for tracking ammo. Talysman drops in a little later (post #26) to mention that he does something similar with wands. (Which, I’ll note, is very similar to Numenera‘s artifact depletion roll.)

For my own reference, I’m going to archive these methods here briefly:

LIGHT SOURCES: In OD&D, set aside a d6 for each lit torch and a d24 for each lit lantern. At the beginning of each turn roll all the dice set aside: Anything that comes up 1 goes out and gets marked off the character sheet. (This results in torches and lanterns having by-the-book durations on average, but introduces an element of uncertainty and variability. More importantly, it simplifies bookkeeping.)

INTWISCHA’S AMMO: The PC has an “ammo die” of a size determined by the amount of ammunition they’re carrying. They roll this die with each attack roll and if it comes up 1, their die type decreases by one size. If they purchase ammunition or find a stash of it during the adventure, they can increase the die size instead.

ALTERNATIVE AMMO: Have your PCs buy ammo in lots equal to the die size of the system you’re using. (d20 in 3.5, for example.) When you roll a 1 on your attack roll, mark off one lot of ammo. (Trail of Cthulhu uses a similar mechanic in pulp mode, but when you roll the 1 you’re actually clicking on an empty cylinder and automatically miss. I’m ditching the “critical failure” aspect of the mechanic and just using it to track ammo.)

WANDS: Roll percentile dice. On a roll of 1 or 2, the wand has run out of charges. (Note: This system doesn’t work if you want the PCs to have some method of determining exactly how many charges are left in a wand.)

What I’m seeing here is a cluster of techniques that I think can be trivially generalized to cover any form of consumable that are likely to be carried in large quantities for frequent use. I suspect it’s particularly useful if you can incorporate it into a general resolution mechanic (instead of rolling a separate die on every single check).

Nick Fury - Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

My general approach to handling “canon” when it comes to using fictional settings in an RPG generally follows the “World War II Doctrine”: Gaming in an established, fictional setting is no different than playing a game that’s set during World War II.

With that being said, there’s a broad spectrum of ways in which you can set a game in World War II at the gaming table:

A) The events of World War II as they happened historically can’t be changed, but primarily exist as a backdrop. You’ll hear about the events of the war, but you’ll never actually meet Hitler or change the outcome of the Battle of Midway.

B) You can meet Hitler, but you can’t shoot him. If you do shoot him, it will turn out you shot a double and history continues along unperturbed.

C) You can totally shoot Hitler.

There’s also the semi-tangential issue of the Alternative History Remix: This is the one where you decide that in your version of World War II, Germany is led by a guy name Hans Strauber and they’re fighting the White Alliance of Brittania and Charlegmania. (Or whatever.)

There’s also a second, rarer spectrum in which the PCs are actually canonical characters. Let’s call it the “Dragonlance Spectrum”:

A) You are playing the members of Hitler’s cabinet, but you’ll create an original character (replacing their historical analogs).

B) You are playing the actual, historical members of Hitler’s cabinet, but you’re free to take whatever actions you want (even if those contradict the historical reality of what the cabinet did).

C) You are playing the actual, historical members of Hitler’s cabinet and you’re going to be railroaded into experiencing World War II exactly the way that they did.

(Actually, this one is probably a little less of a clear spectrum. You could theoretically play non-canonical characters who are nonetheless being railroaded through the same events.)



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