The Alexandrian

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The Strange - System Cheat Sheet

(click for PDF)

The Strange is the new RPG from Monte Cook Games. The basic concept of the game looks something like this:

You may be familiar with the Fermi Paradox, the mysterious paradox which exists between the fact that conditions for intelligent life appear to be plentiful while intelligent life itself appears to be extremely rare. What we’ve discovered is that another scientific mystery — the existence and source of dark energy — is not so much a mystery as it is a smoking gun. We now know several key things about dark energy:

  • It forms a vast network which exists as a fractal substrate beneath the surface of reality as we understand it.
  • This network is, in fact, artificial. We don’t actually know why it was built, but we can tell that it’s the result of alien technology we can’t even begin to understand. This network is commonly referred to as the Strange.
  • The dark energy within this network is drawn to sentient life. When large populations of sentient life are present (like, say, a world with 7 billion people living on it) the concentration of dark energy rises precipitously.
  • Large concentrations of dark energy within the network cause the spontaneous creation of alternate realities based on the collective subconscious of the population. These realities are recursive instantiations of the “prime world” and have become referred to as “recursions”.
  • Unfortunately, large concentrations of dark energy also attract the attention of beings we refer to as “planetovores”. We refer to them by that name because the first time we encountered one, it attempted to eat the planet.

Other threats to humanity also exist in the Strange or emanate from recursions. For example, one of the many recursions in the shoals of Earth is the world of Ruk. It turns out, however, that Ruk is not a recursion of Earth: It was actually spawned from an alien world and then cast adrift through the Strange. Many people on Ruk, however, don’t like being stuck in Earth’s “gravitational pull” within the Strange and want to escape. Unfortunately, the only way they know of accomplishing that is to blow up the planet.

I’m still processing all the awesome material that’s been coming out for The Strange since the beginning of August, but I’ve also been running demo scenarios for Monte Cook Games. (I’ve run those scenarios for 20+ people now.) As a result, I’ve prepped one of my system cheat sheets for the game. This actually proved relatively simply, since the mechanics of The Strange are virtually identical to the mechanics in Numenera. (Somewhere on the order of 99.99% identical.) Where the system differentiates itself are the character creation mechanics (which use the same structure, but with a completely different set of content) and the incredibly clever mechanics by which you “translate” from one recursion to another. (The short version is that all characters in the system are summarized by their type, descriptor, and focus. For example, you might be a graceful paradox who solves mysteries. When you translate from one recursion to another, the core of your character — your type and your descriptor — remains the same. But as you are translated into the symbolic reality of the recursion, your focus changes. So the graceful paradox who solves mysteries on Earth becomes a graceful paradox who embraces Qephilim ancestry on Ardeyn and a graceful paradox who metamorphosizes on Ruk. It looks simple, but in actual play this simple mechanic — and the clever character sheet that makes implementing it a breeze — is addictively awesome.)

HOW I USE THE CHEAT SHEET

As with my other system cheat sheets, this one is designed to summarize all the rules of the game — from basic resolution to advanced combat options. I’ll make stapled copies of these sheets available to the players and also keep a copy behind my screen for quick reference: Serving as a comprehensive system reference, the sheets cut down on the amount of time required for rulebook references. The organization of information onto the cheat sheets should, hopefully, be intuitive. The actual sequencing of the pages is mostly arbitrary:

Page 1: For The Strange, the difficulty terrible is the heart of everything. Once you understand that, the special rolls, GM intrusion, and the concept of advantage/disadvantage 90% of the rest of the system actually becomes irrelevant. This page is likely to become superfluous quickly. You’ll note that I included examples of GM intrusion: This is unusual for my cheat sheets, but so much of the Cypher System is designed to empower strong, flexible rulings by the GM that providing this kind of idea fodder feels right to me and has proven useful during play.

Page 2: The core of the combat mechanics. If you’re teaching new players the game, you really only need to walk them through these first two pages. (I’ve been adding another column or so of additional material at the beginning of each subsequent section, slowly adding more tools to the players’ toolboxes.)

Page 3: The extended combat actions and options. The rules for “Trading Damage for Effect” are technically an optional rule, but I’ve found them too invaluable not to include here. (Compared to the draft version of the sheet, you may also notice that I’ve pulled out the guidelines for simplifying multiple enemies and the boss package you can use to buff NPCs. Very useful stuff for the GM that’s buried deep in the rulebook.)

Page 4: A collection of miscellanea. Optional rules are off on the right, but I haven’t used them yet in my own game. (You’ll also note a couple of house rules tucked down in the corner. These are still being playtested, but I think they’re useful.)

Page 5: Everything that you need to know about cyphers and the Strange. The big thing here are the translation mechanics, which you can use to really emphasize the important difference between translating through the recursions of the Strange and the kind of “teleportation” effect that players might be imagining from shows like Sliders or Stargate SG-1.

Page 6: Hazards & Combat modifiers. ‘Nuff said.

MAKING A GM SCREEN

These cheat sheets can also be used in conjunction iwth a modular, landscape-oriented GM screen (like the ones you can buy here or here).

Personally, I use a four-panel screen and use reverse-duplex printing in order to create sheets that I can tape together and “flip up” to reveal additional information behind them. For The Strange this is pretty straightforward. My screen looks like this:

  • Page 1: Basic Mechanics (nothing behind it)
  • Page 2: Combat (nothing behind it)
  • Page 3: Combat Actions (nothing behind it)
  • Page 4: Miscellaneous Rules, with The Strange printed on the opposite side and Hazards & Combat Modifiers behind it.

PLAY THE STRANGE

My only regret right now is that I’ve got enough gaming projects on my plate right now that I don’t know when I’ll be able to prep anything for The Strange beyond the introductory scenario and the demo scenario I’ve been running. But, like Numenera before it, this game already has my official “I Had a Ton of Fun Running That” seal of approval. So I recommend grabbing a copy ASAP and digging in.

The Strange - Monte Cook Games

JDJarvis at Aeons & Augauries has the really interesting idea of randomly determining the source of your PC’s starting wealth. Click through for a full table that gives you everything from petty theft to rich uncles to grave robbing.

I’ve seen a lot of “random background tables”, but what caught my eye about this one is that it leverages a common mechanic and seeds the mechanic with interesting narrative hooks. Any of y’all have interesting answers to the, “Where did you get that money from?” question?

In other news, I’m back from Gencon! 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 lack of variety was not so much by design as accident: Reaching the second round of the Cthulhu Masters Tournament knocked out two other games that were originally on my schedule. (Although the decision to run 4 games for Monte Cook Games prevented me from participating in Games on Demand this year, which is a variety killer.)

Dungeons & Dragons - 5th Edition

As some my readers here may be aware, a hotly burning controversy has broken out around the list of people credited as “Consultants” in the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Specifically, two people on that list — RPGPundit and Zak S. — have been accused of harassment and misogyny and all sorts of other hateful behavior.

The problem?

There’s no evidence than any of it is true.

The witch hunt began, the way so many witch hunts do, with people claiming that they’d heard from other people that RPGPundit and Zak S. had done horrible things to them. When people started pointing out that a hate campaign based entirely on hearsay was problematic, the tactics of the witch hunt escalated by claiming that the people affected were unable to come forward because RPGPundit and Zak S. would harass them if they did.

A good example of where this tactic led can be found in Tom Hatfield’s “How Dungeons and Dragons is endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community”. According to Hatfield, Mearls responded to the controversy by asking people who had any evidence or first-hand reports of wrongdoing by RPGPundit or Zak S. to send it to him. (This is true.) According to Hatfield, “almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit” and they “leapt” at the opportunity Mearls had given them, sharing with him “names, links, screenshots, and other traceable information I [Hatfield] removed to protect my sources.”

But several days later Mearls reported that no such evidence had been sent to him. So what happened? According to Hatfield, Mearls had deluded himself into believing that “this can’t really be happening.”

So let’s take a moment, strip away the dog-and-pony show of outrage, and review what we know: Unidentified people are reportedly claiming that non-specific things happened.

Why should we take that seriously?

The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t.

The proof that these people engaged in a massive, misogynistic harassment campaign cannot be provided because of their proven track record of harassment? That’s a remarkable piece of doublethink. When you’re reduced to claiming that the best proof of the conspiracy’s existence is that there’s no evidence the conspiracy exists, you’ve left the land of rationality and entered the land of fake Apollo moon landings and flat-earthers.

THE DEEPER PROBLEM

The deeper problem here, however, is that this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in the RPG community. In fact, a lot of the same people who are driving this fact-free witch hunt of the 5E Consultants routinely engage in this behavior.

For example, the origins of the current witch hunt lie with an earlier one: A couple years ago, Ben Lehman accused James Desborough of threatening to rape people who criticized him. Zak S. called him out and demanded that Lehman provide proof that this had happened. Lehman refused and a line-up of the usual suspects appeared to support him. Another guy, by the name of John Stavropolous, spent 10 months researching the claim and eventually posted his conclusion that Lehman had simply lied. (UPDATE: Mr. Stavropolous clarifies the exact wording of his refutation of Lehman in the comments below.) Zak S. linked to Stavropolous’ research and also copy-pasted the list of people who had publicly supported Lehman’s lie asking them to rescind it. People were outraged that Zak S. had called people out for lying. One notable example was Paul Ettin, an RPGNet moderator, who said that people should both support and spread Lehman’s original lie “for solidarity” and “also, giggles!”

But the Lehman lie can be traced back to an even earlier controversy. James Desborough wrote a blog post supporting the thesis statement, “Rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element, one of many.” RPGNet poster MalaDicta attacked Desborough by misquoting him out of context as saying, “Rape is fucking awesome.” Based on this blatant lie and the outrage it sparked, she later started a petition to boycott Mongoose for publishing Desborough’s books. RPGNet moderator Ettin actually sought and received special permission from RPGNet’s administrators in order to start a thread supporting the petition.

You see the pattern there? They tell a lie about a specific quote that someone supposedly said at a specific time and place. People check it out and call them on the lie. A few months later, they tell a different lie claiming that someone supposedly said something… but refuse to name the time or place that it happened. This makes it harder for people to check it out, but they do and eventually they call them on the lie. So they come back a few months later, and this time they tell a lie with no specific details whatsoever and we’re supposed to believe it because there are no details that can be checked out.

You may have noticed how often RPGNet gets mentioned here. There are a couple reasons for that. First, members of their moderation team (particularly Ettin) are neck-deep in perpetuating these witch hunts. (Ettin says he does it for “giggles”, but that doesn’t negate the real people who are hurt by his antics.) Second, RPGNet has made itself a perfect incubator for these witch hunts: By policy, posters at RPGNet are banned when they “deny the experience” of people making accusations of sexism. In practice, this means that people can say things that are blatant lies, but anyone questioning them (or even demonstrating that it’s a proven lie) is immediately banned. By both discouraging and weeding out rational discourse, RPGNet becomes the perfect incubator for fact-free witch hunts.

But here’s the real problem: When you cry wolf about threats of rape or violent harassment or even just problematic art in RPGs, you’re not just hurting the people you’re making the false accusations against. You’re also hurting the people who have real complaints and who have real problems, whose experiences will be delegitimized because you’ve created a culture which inherently distrusts such accusations.

And that’s not even taking into account the disturbing behavior pattern demonstrated by the usual suspects of villainizing and slut-shaming women who come forward to support the people being falsely accused of vile behavior. The two most notable examples of this, at least in my first-hand experience, are Mandy Morbid (who has vociferously defended Zak S.’s demonstrable record of standing up for women’s rights and the rights of the LGTBQ community) and Shanna Germain (who took point when Monte Cook was accused of misogyny for including a succubus-like SF creature in Numenera‘s bestiary).

CONCLUSION

If you believe that Desborough’s defense of rape as a plot point is the same thing as saying “rape is fucking awesome”. If you believe that using succubi in your RPG campaign is “creeper rape play bullshit”. If you believe that accusations without proof should be believed because they have no proof. If you believe that this picture

is a misogynistic “money shot” that is hostile to women and makes them not want to be part of the roleplaying community, then most of what I’ve said here probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. But if you don’t agree with that sort of nonsense, then I ask you to recognize that the RPG industry does have a problem with sexism. And the people crying wolf are a part of that problem.

So why are they doing it? Well, some of them are just trolls who think it’s funny or who enjoy the feeling of power it gives them. (Like Ettin, the RPGNet moderator who does it for “giggles”.) Others, I think, are doing it primarily for the attention. Which is why I haven’t been providing links to their misbehavior in this post. Unfortunately, this also puts me in the position of saying things without backing them up. So I’ve included a “Links You Shouldn’t Follow” section at the bottom of the post if you want to verify what I’ve said here, but I really do urge you not to feed the trolls here.

What can be done about this problem? Well, you can start by being aware of it. And you can follow up by calling it out whenever you see it happening. This type of slanderous whisper campaign thrives on people silently tolerating it. You don’t have to get mean. You don’t have to insult. But when you see a proven lie, call it what it is. (Even if RPGNet will ban you for it.)

It is in that spirit of solidarity that I’m posting this.

In the same spirit, however, I’ll close by pointing out that this type of fact-free nonsense is not the exclusive purlieu of those slandering RPGPundit and Zak S. over the past few weeks. In fact, RPGPundit himself has spent years espousing a crazy conspiracy theory of “Swine” who are secretly collaborating to destroy traditional roleplaying (which he seems to largely define as “any roleplaying game that I like”) through a multitude of techniques that, historically speaking, were primarily about designing storytelling games and, more recently, have included “social justice swine” or “pseudo-activist swine”. It really kinda goes without saying that RPGPundit has absolutely no evidence that this vast “conspiracy” actually exists and, much like the cry-wolfers, his incoherent tirades are damaging to any position he chooses to attach himself to.

And that’s the bottom line: Don’t tolerate it from him. Don’t tolerate it from them. Don’t tolerate hate. Don’t tolerate lies. And call them on it when you see it happening.

(But if you want to send some kind and warm thoughts towards Zak S. and Mandy Morbid right now, it seems like they need them: Ms. Morbid is very, very ill.)

UPDATE – A LINK YOU SHOULD TOTALLY FOLLOW: I strongly endorse Seebs’ exhaustively researched summary of this conflict if you’re looking to delve deeper.

LINKS YOU SHOULDN’T FOLLOW

“How Dungeons and Dragons is endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community”

2012 Consultant’s Thread at RPGNet

RPGNet moderator Ettin suggests that people show “solidarity” for slanderous lies for “giggles”

RPGNet moderator Ettin supports MalaDicta’s lies about James Desborough

RPGNet anti-Numenera thread

Aleena’s depiction is a problem references (the original G+ discussion was deleted)

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.

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

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