GMI E49 The Obsidian Monolith 04 - Prepping and Running a Numenera Session

The Obsidian Monolith is a supplemental podcast to GM Intrusions in which I will build a Numenera campaign from scratch. Today I share how I prepare and run a Numenera session. I then discuss my goals and plans for the first adventure of The Obsidian Monolith campaign.

The Obsidian Monolith continues in the Game Master's Journey podcast.

OM 01 - Preparing for an Adventure
OM 02 - Laying the Foundation for your Campaign
OM 03 - Location, Location, Location
OM 04 - Prepping and Running a Numenera Session
OM 05 - The Town of Bonespir
OM 06 - The Windmill in the Woods
OM 07 - Connecting Adventures Together
OM 08 - The Village of the Culovas
OM 09 - The Machine of the Emols
OM 10 - The Conclusion of the Campaign

Actual Play (Audio)

Session 01 Part 1 - The Town of Bonespir
Session 01 Part 2 - The Windmill in the Woods
Session 01 Part 3 - Inside the Windmill
Session 02 Part 1 - The Swarm from Hell
Session 02 Part 2 - Numenera Hunters
Session 03 Part 1 - The Order of Tianma
Session 03 Part 2 - Bugbusters
Session 04 Part 1 - The Man They Called Zain
Session 04 Part 2 - Madame Saydle's Wondrous Soup

Actual Play (Video)

The YouTube playlist includes the first session and sessions 8-12.

Running a Game of Numenera

I usually don’t come up with a plot per se. Rather set up a situation and let the PCs decide how to deal with it.

I may come up with a few possibilities of what they might do and think about the consequences, but this is more a mental exercise to start to get a feel for the permutations.

I don’t try to steer the PCs in one of these directions, and I fully expect they’ll do something completely different.

How I prep a session

I come up with cyphers ahead of time. I like the cyphers to make sense in their context, and I think it's bad form to make my PCs wait while I come up with them during play. 

I also come up with some GMIs, making sure I have at least a couple for each character and each scene. My intrusions are much better when I come up with them ahead of time. 

I've also started writing out vivid descriptions to set each scene. The nice thing about doing an AP is I can evaluate my own GMing. I've found my descriptions are lacking or nonexistent if I don't think about them ahead of time. Nothing makes for boring roleplay like constantly being in rooms of gray mist. 

What happens if the PCs fail?

I try to come up with at least one or two hooks to throw in each session. The goal is to give the PCs more possibilities than they can do.

They choose what to do.

Minimizes “this is what the GM wants us to do” metagame thinking.

Makes the world more multidimensional and real.

I usually only plan one session at a time because I don’t know what the PCs will do.

If I do need or want the PCs to go a certain direction, or for something specific to happen, I can always use a GMI to accomplish this.

My GMing is influenced highly by the old World of Darkness games, so I think of a game session in scenes. I usually prepare 3-4 scenes for each session.

I don't railroad players, but I almost always use the scenes I come up with. I think there are two types of players--players who will gamely follow a story (good players) and players who will intentionally go against a story (bad players). ;) Luckily all the players in all my groups are of the first variety (actually, luck has nothing to do with it).

For each scene I come up with an evocative description--using as many of the five senses as I can. Just like in writing, a description should be short, but use evocative imagery and engage all senses. Describe one or two characteristics about the object, setting, or person that are unusual, distinctive or stand out. This is enough for the players to build a mental image and enough they can remember it. Any more than that, and they'll start forgetting details.

For each scene I also come up with at least two GMIs. I make sure I have at least two GMIs for each player among all the scenes.

Now, of course, I can't anticipate everything the players will do, so I do have to make things up on the fly. But the prepared scenes anchor the session and ensure for at least those scenes I'll have good descriptions, multi-dimensional NPCs and creative GMIs.

I think the best way to illustrate is with an example. Let’s say I want to run a basic murder mystery story. I might prep it something like this:

BASIC PREP:  This adventure takes place in a small town. I come up with what and who's in the town. I anticipate places the PCs may visit, and flesh those out with a description of the place and come up with any NPCs that might be there. Yes, the players may go somewhere I didn't flesh out, but then I come up with that on the fly. 

SCENE ONE:  The PCs are in a tavern. Open the session with a description of the tavern, who's in it and what's going on around them. I decide which NPCs are in the town, and have an idea on each of them--at the very least a description and name. I flesh some out for the PCs to interact with--obvious choices here: the bartender, the waitress serving the PCs' table, the minstrel entertaining the bar, any NPCs that might initiate interaction with the PCs. I let the PCs roleplay and have fun, talk with the NPCs. As soon as things start to wind down, they hear a scream from outside. If the PCs don't immediately go out to investigate, another NPC runs in from outside, says so-and-so's been murdered. If the PCs still don't investigate, I let things play out with the NPCs. Probably skip scene two, and have a constable or other NPC come and ask for the PCs' help. Again, my players would investigate at this point (if not before) because they're good players and want to experience a good story.

SCENE TWO: Body in the street. This scene occurs outside the tavern, where a newly slain person lies in the street. Again, come up with a description (in this case mainly of the corpse, which the PCs will presumably investigate). Also come up with any NPCs on the scene. Since this is a murder mystery, I need to know what each NPC saw, what they remember (which, of course, isn't the same), what they'll willingly share with the PCs, and what they may share with a successful social roll.

At this point the adventure opens up and becomes more sandboxy, but I can anticipate where the PCs will go and who they'll talk to based on the information the NPCs give them. 

Each of these locations becomes another scene that I prepare for as above. The PCs may do the scenes in any order, and they may not do all of them, that's fine.

This may seem like a lot of prep, but it doesn't take much time. Also, I run campaigns, not one-shots, so there's no such thing as wasted prep. All the stuff I come up with for the town I'll use eventually because the PCs will have a few adventures here. All the NPCs I come up with I'll probably use for the same reason. If there's an NPC the PCs never interact with, I can use that NPC at a later time, in a totally different town, or even a different campaign.

I also always have a living world, in which every campaign I run takes place in the same world. So the second campaign sees the consequences of what the first campaign did, and so on. I ran D&D like this for over a decade, and my Forgotten Realms setting grew and changed over that time due to the actions of PCs in multiple groups.

In this scenario, there is no such thing as wasted prep.

Planning the first adventure

Starting near the Westwood in Navarene.

Want to do something with the culovas and their conflict with the Navarene loggers—how will the PCs treat these creatures?

I like the idea of starting in a small town. Keeps the scale small at the beginning and gives a new GM time to get a feel before the world opens up. Also gives the players a real connection to a place of origin to deepen their background and immersion in the world.

A small logging town on the edge of the Westwood would be perfect. A good home base for the PCs and will make it easy to bring in the culovas.

Goals for the first adventure

(keeping in mind the players may be new to the game)

Introduce the setting—show the weird, tech level, and numenera.

Start with action. Get the game going immediately. Either start in media res, or at least give the PCs a clear goal to accomplish at the start.

Make the first adventure relatively straightforward, but add some interesting twists. Give points of contact for D&D players, but also challenge their preconceptions and show how Numenera is different.

Start PCs strongly tied to the Order of Truth.

I would like the PCs to enter the Westwood and have a (hopefully peaceful) encounter with the culovas.

Give them a discovery to investigate in the Westwood.

Have an Aeon Priest in the town who can serve as a mentor for the PCs and a connection to the Order.

Perhaps he’s estranged from the Order, or for some other reason wants to gain or regain standing within it.

This NPC can send the PCs on their first adventure and possibly provide hooks for future adventures.

To Do List

Develop my town.

·        Weird in the town

·        Places of interest

·        NPCs

·        Rumors & adventure seeds

·        Way of life & culture

·        Descriptions

Come up with a discovery in the Westwood to explore

Think of an interesting way to introduce the culovas to the PCs


On Writing by Stephen King

This is how you begin a scene!

Special thank you to Solarcity for the special goodness at the end of the cast! Download the Reversed Polarity Mix here.

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