GM Intrusions E69 - Discovery Through Combat

In this episode of GM Intrusions I’m going to put one of the core tenets of Numenera under the microscope.

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Opening Segment

Patron Hangout on YouTube

The December Hangout is available to view on the Starwalker Studios YouTube channel.

The Obsidian Monolith & OM AP episodes

Poll is still open. So far looks like most people prefer a regular GMI every week and OM and OMAP as I can do them.

Please visit the poll on the GMI G+ page and let me know your opinion.

Sessions 8 and 9 out on YouTube.

If you want to skip ahead, there aren’t any huge spoilers, and it’s the beginning of a new arc.

I hope to have the second part of session 4 out sometime in the next few weeks, followed by an episode of OM.

Under the Lens

Is the Leads focus broken?

Nick Bonilla asked on G+ about the Good Advice ability in the Leads focus.

Tier 1: Good Advice (1 Intellect Point). You have a clear mind for determining the best way to proceed. When you give another character a suggestion involving his next action, the character is trained in that action for one round. Action (Numenera page 66).

Nick wonders if this is broken because if you have 1 Intellect Edge, you could use it all the time.

Shanna Germain weighed in on this (which was awesome of her):

I think you might be misreading the rule. Good Advice allows you to use your action to give advice to ANOTHER character, making that character trained in one action for one round.

So you could certainly spend every one of your actions helping out your fellow players, but you would lose the chance to do anything else on those turns.

Nick wondered:

But... anyone can say "use those crates over there for a boost up" and it would give an asset... You don't have to have a Leads focus to do that. How is the skill any different?

Shanna replied:

Anyone can say that, but that doesn't necessarily provide an asset. You only provide an asset to someone if you have training in that task. Otherwise, it's just +1 to the roll. Good Advice means you don't have to have training in the tasks that you are assisting with. 

From the corebook section on helping: 

If the helper does not have training or specialization in that task, or if the acting character already is as trained or specialized as the helper, the acting character instead gets a +1 bonus to the roll (Numenera page 101)

Just for clarity, from the book on Good Advice, "...the character is trained in that action for one round" (Numenera page 66).

A few results of this. 

1.) This does not provide an asset, it provides training. So you can still "stack" up to 2 steps of difficulty reduction from assets on top of it.

2.) Since it provides training, it will do nothing for someone already trained or specialized in the task. The GM could allow it to give the +1 you'd get from assistance by an equal or less trained character (and I think that makes sense), but I don't think that's RAW, as this ability isn't "assisting" the acting character, it's making them trained in something they're not normally trained in.

Numenera really is a combat-focused game “by the book”

Yes, you can run the game how you like. I’m not discussing how you could run the game. I’m discussing how the game is presented by the book.

You could run Pathfinder with zero combat and no miniatures, but that doesn’t mean that most Pathfinder games you find won’t have combat and use miniatures. The design of the system itself encourages both combat and miniatures.

Although the “goal” of Numenera may be discovery, it is intended by the system that that goal be achieved through combat. We know this based on the number of tools we’re given for combat compared to the number of tools for other things like discovery.

This is NOT on MCG, it’s on us. I can find no evidence that anyone from MCG has said Numenera isn’t about combat. However, it is something we often say in the community as players and GMs, and it’s an impression new players often have. This impression is false, and it behooves us as custodians of the game not to sell it to new players by leading them to false assumptions.

This is not exhaustive. There are many more points of evidence and examples than what I’m presenting. I don’t need a two hour discussion to make my point, however. You can find more points of evidence and examples on your own without too much effort if you look for them.

Points of Evidence:

There are two physical pools (speed and might), but only one pool for Intellect and Social actions.

This has already proven awkward in some of my games. Imagine two characters, a brainy nano and a socially eloquent jack. The nano isn’t especially eloquent, and the jack isn’t especially brainy. However, they both use Intellect Pool and Edge for all social and intellectual actions. So the nano has just as much pool and edge when he’s trying to charm someone as when he’s trying to figure out an ancient text. The jack has just as much pool and edge when he’s trying to decipher an ancient text as when he’s trying to charm someone.

Now you could argue that this could be somewhat mitigated by inabilities and abilities from each character’s descriptor, but what if the nano didn’t choose a descriptor with social inabilities? What if the jack didn’t choose one with intellectual inabilities? They’d both be equally good at intellectual and interpersonal tasks.

We could forgive this as part of keeping things simple, but in the physical realm we spit Might and Speed into two pools. The system is more granular for physical and combat actions than it is for intellectual and interpersonal actions. Strange for a game that claims to be about discovery, which seems more an intellectual pursuit.

The sheer number of creatures in the game with whom you can’t communicate or interact with.

Creatures like:

The Bloodfeast Tick

Motive: Destruction, Interaction: Tick scions can’t be reasoned with—they live to destroy…” (The Ninth World Bestiary page 26).

The Herder

Interaction: Communication is not possible” (The Ninth World Bestiary page 63).

The Avatorol

Motive: Hungers for flesh” (The Ninth World Bestiary page 22).

The Dabirri

Motive: Belligerance, Interaction: One cannot effectively communicate with these creatures in any way” (The Ninth World Bestiary page 33).

This is effectively telling the GM, this is going to be a combat encounter. The PCs can fight or run away.

As a GM it’s very easy to find antagonists for the PCs to fight. It can be challenging to find a creature they can encounter and find another solution (at least there seems to be far fewer of those than ones like above).

The number of combat rules and optional rules.

Cooperative actions (many of which are combat focused).

Trading damage for effect.

Getting a bonus for a 17 or 18 in combat, but nowhere else.

The number of combat abilities (and foci) as opposed to ones for discovery or other non-combat things.

I counted up all the foci abilities from the corebook. For simplicity’s sake and to save time, I counted abilities that showed up multiple foci each time they showed up.

There are 6 out of a total of 29 foci in the corebook that have ONLY combat abilities. These are Bears a Halo of Flame, Carries a Quiver, Fights with Panache, Howls at the Moon, Masters Weaponry, and Wields Two Weapons at Once.

There are an additional 4 foci which are nearly combat-only, to the point that if the GM told the player that there would be zero combat in the campaign, I don’t think the player would choose these foci. They are Masters Defense, Murders, Rages, Wears a Sheen of Ice.

Just looking at foci, 21% of the foci in the corebook are combat-only, and 34% are either combat only, or close enough they wouldn’t’ be chosen in a zero combat campaign. That’s 34% of entire foci devoted to combat is not a game that’s not about combat in my book.

These numbers should be ZERO! In a game not about combat, how can we have entire foci that give nothing but abilities for combat?

Now, if we count all foci abilities in the corebook, we get 105 total foci abilities (again, counting ones granted in multiple foci each time they appear).

Of these 105 abilities, 80 of them are useful ONLY in combat. That’s 76% of the foci abilities!

Now, you might say, well, I can think of creative ways to use some of those combat abilities out of combat. Yes, you could, and we could come up with examples till the cows come home.

However, in a game that’s about discovery, wouldn’t you rather have abilities with obvious uses in social, intellectual, exploratory and discovery situations that, with some creativity, can be useful in combat? As opposed to 76% of the abilities obviously being for combat, and maybe if you’re creative you can find some uses in a handful of non-combat situations?

Also, I don’t count an ability that gives, say a bonus to Might defense, as a combat ability, because that’s useful against a lot of things, not just combat. However, an ability like Onslaught is a combat ability.

What about type abilities?

I counted 118 type abilities (again counting duplicates in multiple types) and of those 62 are combat abilities, which is 53%.

The total type and foci abilities is 223, of which 142 are combat abilities, which is 64% of the abilities in the corebook.

I focused mainly on the corebook for time purposes and because it’s the core of the game.

However, if you pull in Character Options and look at the foci, 2 out of the 25 foci are combat only (which is 8%), which are Needs No Weapon and Throws With Deadly Accuracy. 14 are nearly combat only, which is a total of 56% of the foci in Character Options that are combat only or nearly so. These additional foci are Battles Automatons, Consorts with the Dead, Defends the Weak, Fights Dirty, Hunts Abhumans, Hunts Mutants, Masters Insects, Metes Out Justice, Never Says Die, Performs Feats of Strength, Siphons Power, and Stands Like a Bastion.

In the game total, we then have 54 total foci. 8 of those are combat only, which is 15%. There are 24 of the foci that are combat only or nearly so, which is a total of 44%. So our combat only foci percentage got a little better with Character Options (21% core, 8% CO, 15% total), but including the ones that might as well be combat-only, the percentage gets worse (34% core, 56% CO, 44% total).

Types

Glaive is a combat-only type, which is 1/3 of the types.

Jack is pretty much half glaive as far as type abilities granted.

A lot of the Nano abilities are combat only.

Many cyphers and artifacts are combat oriented.

I didn’t count, but I’d be willing bet that more than 50% of them are.

Caveats

I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense.

I think the Ninth World should be a very dangerous place. Much of it is wild with no civilization or protection.

There are all these remnants from the ancient worlds lying around with dangerous technology no one understands.

It makes sense that many (or even most or all) ancient facilities would have security systems, automated defenses, and mechanical ageless guardians to protect them.

It makes sense that the societies of the Ninth World tend to be somewhat crude, and that your average, uneducated Ninth Worlder is more likely to solve a problem with his fists than his brain. Think of our world in the Middle or Dark Ages. Science, learning, and reason were not esteemed—they were feared and distrusted. People were ruled by their emotions, not their minds. People were superstitious and ignorant, relying on superstition and religion to explain reality as opposed to facts and the scientific method.

Combat is part of what makes it a game.

The vast majority of video games involve some kind of combat. The ones that don’t are memorable exceptions.

I can’t read the minds of people at MCG, but it seems reasonable that Numenera was intended to attract players of the large mainstream games like D&D, Pathfinder, etc., which are all very focused on combat in their mechanics. Numenera does take a very small step away from that, just not as big of one as some would like to think.

I’m not saying this is bad.

I’m not saying combat in a game is bad. However, when we present this game to a new player to tell them it is about discovery and not combat is not accurate. In reality there is only one thing about the game that’s about discovery—you get xp for discoveries. Many other elements in the system are encouraging combat.

You could say this is a game of discovery through combat.

Yes, awarding xp for discovery and not directly based on combat is a step in a good direction. However, the majority of tools offered to the players involve combat (foci, foci abilities, type abilities, types, cyphers and artifacts). A lot of the tools given to GMs involve combat (rules, optional rules, creatures).

Unless you really make a concerted effort to avoid combat in your game, you will see quite a bit of combat, especially if you have glaives in the party or combat only foci.

This isn’t bad. Embrace it. Combat in the cypher system is FUN! In fact, it’s so fun, next week I’m going to talk about all the ways you can make combat fun in your game.

Combat is fast, and doesn’t have to bog down play. It builds real tension, as the PCs are in danger (however you can also achieve this without combat, through traps, environment, etc.).

There is a subtle difference in this game compared to some others, though, in that combat is a means to an end, but not the end itself. XP is rewarded for discovery, not defeating encounters.

Encourage creative uses of abilities—both combat and noncombat.

Using abilities creatively, check out the system on pages 114-115 of the Numenera corebook in the section called Modifying Abilities.

Encourage descriptive roleplaying of combat by the players, and give them assets when they do so.

The point, in my mind, isn’t to avoid combat, or even to downplay it, but to make it more than rolling dice and subtracting health. When combat begins, the roleplaying and storytelling doesn’t end, in fact, if anything it should be turned up a notch.

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