Numenera – The Nightmare Switch Gameplay – Part 2/4 – The Adventure Begins

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The Adventure Begins

And so our party found itself on Deymish’s ship, with 3 crewmen, passing through the Seshar region, which consists of huge artificial canals cut in straight lines through burning desert terrain patrolled by roaming margr tribes. Deymish was urgently shipping three crates to the Redstone clave of Aeon Priests, for reasons unknown.

It’s important to note that as part of character creation I handed out mostly random cyphers to each of the characters, to their limit. Although I can’t remember the specifics of each, the important cyphers will rear their heads in this adventure, I promise you.

During the journey our Jack, Gabriel, worked his miracles and attempted to convince the crewmembers of his holiness. During character creation, Gabriel asked me whether his oddity could be an old Bible or something. I explained this was a billion years in the future (remembering the specific warning in the core book not to relate things to the modern era). I relented a little eventually, and gave him a 1″ cube of black polished metal. Whenever exposed to sunlight, this oddity would project a 3m giant metal cross, over which would scroll letters or runes in an unintelligible language, while it intoned deep, impressive words in another unintelligible language. The letters and words would never be the same each time he activated it. I didn’t really want to introduce a recognisable symbol at all, but thought it was generic enough to be passable. In hindsight, the setting would’ve suited a Tau cross better.

Combined with his natural power to heal (granted by his focus) and his training in persuasive speech, Gabriel used this to consistently and effectively convince people that he was some kind of holy creature directly in touch with the divine. Although introduced as a simple oddity during character creation (his focus was ‘Works Miracles’), the Giant Metal Cross (capitals intentional) and his healing touch became the single defining element of this adventure.

I’m not entirely sure how the party would have achieved anything without it, looking back.

Deymish’s ship arrived at the Redstone docks, where a single, listless townsman awaited them and tied the ship up. I emphasised that the docks were quite empty, and that the town itself did not seem too lively. The few townsfolk visible wandered the streets clumsily.

The crewmen proceeded to bring up the three crates, ready for transport. Deymish pointed out that the characters merely had to bring the cargo to the clave tower, visible above the city, to collect their payment. Chronus, the Nano, activated his ‘scan’ esotery to analyse the boxes, and discovered that one crate held boxes of thin metal needles, one held boxes of dried flowers, and one held random pieces of metal and burned out parts. This had the players discussing what the Aeon Priests could possibly want with these random goods.

Unable to carry all the crates to the tower in one trip, the players turned to the NPC who had just tied up the boat. Gabriel started to quiz him about his day, and the poor fellow was so exhausted (from the two weeks of nightmarish interrupted sleep) that he could barely answer questions properly. This of course led into questions of what was going on in the town, which were answered vaguely.

It was at this point that Gabriel changed the nature of the adventure. ‘I could try to heal him, right?’ he asked. Exhaustion from lack of sleep, as described in the adventure itself, is really just a steady draining of the Intellect stat pools over time. So I ruled that, sure, he could use his healing powers to attempt to restore the NPC’s Intellect.

Always say, ‘yes’, right?

Gabriel rolled against his power’s Difficulty of 2 (1d20 roll against a target of 2 x 3 = 6). He rolled a 19, which grants an additional minor effect to the roll. I decided that apart from getting some healing points into his Intellect pool, the healing power seriously pepped the NPC up.

His eyes lit up, he was amazed, he couldn’t believe how awake he felt, he hadn’t felt this great in two weeks! Rejuvenated, he spilled everything about what had happened in town, since two weeks ago a quarryman came back from the quarry and said he was having nightmares, and everyone had nightmares ever since. The quarryman had killed himself by cutting his own throat just a week ago. Everyone was going insane, but now, thanks to Gabriel’s healing touch and the power of the Giant Metal Cross, all their problems were solved!

The more astute players realised that this messianic solution was bound to cause some problems. The NPC thanked the party profusely and then ran up into town, into the market square, to start proclaiming the salvation of the Giant Metal Cross and the Cross Bearer who had healed him and healed them all.

This caused some trouble, as now all the townsfolk who were awake were gathered in the market square listening to the excited ranting of our new friend. The party decided to grab the lightest of the crates and sneak past the crowd. This wasn’t so difficult, as the crowd was focussed on the healed NPC and mostly dog-tired. A few people glanced in their direction but no one made a fuss. Arrowtail, phasing between realities, rolled a 19 on her stealth action and as a minor effect actually became invisible for a few rounds. None of the townsfolk knew she was there at all.

The party arrived at the clave tower, only to be met by the devoted guard, Hataniah, armed with spear and sword and marginally more alert than the regular townsfolk, being an actual Glaive of some skill. As described in the adventure, she refused the party entry, telling them to come back tomorrow (in the adventure, she effectively tells the party to ‘come back tomorrow’ every day). The players were singularly uninterested in sleeping in the town at any time, because of these nightmares, so this didn’t go over so well.

They argued, they clamoured, but Hataniah would not let them in. ‘Come back tomorrow,’ she said, ‘I’ll let the clave know you were here,’ she said. Eventually Gabriel used his persuasive skills to convince her to accept at least the crate that they had carried up through the town. Grumbling, the party regathered in the middle of the street to discuss what their next options were.

I had a list of personages relevant to the town, and I didn’t want the adventure to slow down too much, so I had the town mayor, Corl, come up to introduce himself to the party and tell them how much he had heard from the NPC they had healed. He invited the party to the local tavern, where they sat down and he asked, ‘So show me this Giant Metal Cross?’ and I reminded Gabriel that it only worked in full sunlight. Gabriel suggested they go outside in the courtyard, where he displayed the power and proceeded to use his healing touch to shock Corl awake. This healing power was free to use, because it cost 1 Intellect and Gabriel had an Intellect Edge of 1. It’s only drawback was that repeated use on a player increased the Difficulty by 1 each time. This had no game impact on the villagers, of course.

Amazed and impressed, the Mayor filled them in on what had been going on and how excited he was that Gabriel and his allies could now heal the 180 workers who toiled in the quarry daily. The party exchanged nervous glances at this. ‘First hit’s free!’ we joked at Gabriel’s expense. Already the party was realising that this solution was going to do them more harm than good if they didn’t fix the actual nightmares themselves.

Gabriel tried to hedge his bets by explaining that the amount of healing and nightmare reduction was dependent on how much faith the townsfolk had in the Giant Metal Cross, but this didn’t quite get through to Corl, who said his sister managed the quarry and would be right along. He headed off, reminding the barkeep that all drinks for the party were free.

Some time passed, during which a large crowd gathered outside the tavern, the barkeep was healed by Gabriel, and Corl’s sister arrived to discuss how the party might fix redstone quarrying productivity by healing 180 workers. Gabriel promised he would hold a sermon for everyone in the marketsquare, but that they all needed to investigate the quarry afterwards, to see if anything they had dug up in the last two weeks was responsible for the nightmares.

Notice that any urgency to get into the clave tower to talk to the Aeon Priests was already fading at this stage. The original adventure, as written, basically expected the players to make getting into the tower a priority. The original adventure, of course, also expected the players to encounter a tired, surly population, not a reinvigorated one eager to be healed by the messianic Jack, Gabriel.

Acrophelia, protecting Gabriel, led him outside to the market square, and through the tired but excited crowd. Chronus and Arrowtail blended into the crowd, Chronus to get an understanding of the mood of the populace, while Arrowtail merely wanted to use her ‘Exists out of Phase with Reality’ power and any distractions to pickpocket the locals.

As an aside, I generally found that difficulties of 2 or 3 were decent targets for general actions. A Difficulty of 3 means a target of 9 or higher on a d20 roll. It’s a 60% chance of success, so ‘good’ but not ‘great’, but simple training makes it significantly easier.

Arrowtail pickpocketed 20 or so shins while Gabriel showed off his oddity and orated about how believing enough and praying enough would certainly banish the nightmares.

In the middle of his speech, a woman stepped out of the crowd and called out to be healed. Ever the hero, Gabriel told her to come forward, and used his healing power successfully to heal her. She was so happy that she raised her arms and promptly fainted with excitement.

This is where I realised a nice bit of GM intrusion would be appropriate. I took two XP cards (I Kickstarted the hell out of Numenera and have all the XP and Cypher decks and whatnots, even the special dice), and handed them to Gabriel, saying, ‘So now she’s asleep.’ The players realised what this meant just as I said, ‘The crowd goes silent as the woman starts to scream in her sleep.’

Having the crowd realise that their messianic healer might be solving their sleep deprivation but not the actual inability to sleep was a giant mood killer. The party understood this had to be stopped at all costs. Gabriel handed his second XP point to Acrophelia, who said, ‘I step out and pick her up, calling out that the demons have to be expelled from her. Meanwhile I try to shake her awake.’

I loved their desperate bluff, so didn’t make anyone roll. The woman woke up and cried out that everything was better now. Close call, and dramatically exciting as the players held their breath. Having a nasty dramatic narrative turn be rewarded with some XP points pitted the players against me in a non-confrontational way. It was less ‘players trying to outsmart the GM’ and more ‘GM throwing a puzzle at the players to challenge them’. In essence a GM intrusion is no different from how the DM makes calls in Dungeons & Dragons, but in terms of how the players reacted to the effect it felt much more balanced. To them it wasn’t me flexing my arbitrary storytelling power (although it was), but rather the GM using an explicit game mechanic to increase narrative tension. I guess the players could see already, this first time, that I wasn’t cheating them by making bad things happen.

With the townspeople placated somewhat, the mayor’s sister led us to the town’s quarry, where the characters were convinced the problem had originated two weeks ago. The adventure itself notes this is a red herring, and it certainly worked out like that. As they walked from the town to the quarry, through a narrow road protected by tall Numenera spires (to keep the superstitious margr at bay), the party noticed a distant reflection of sunlight in the desert. This was the ancient dome housing the broken machine responsible for the town’s nightmares, but they didn’t know that. I didn’t need to give the players a hint that there was something out there, but since they didn’t seem too interested in chasing up the Aeon Priest tower in the city, which told them there was, I thought they might as well have a little clue.

Being seasoned players, they seized upon this little bit of information and started walking up and down the road to try to work out if it was a static reflection as of a building, or a circumstantial one, as of a light reflecting off a scope or some such. They worked out pretty quickly that it was a structure some 15-20 miles away. They were immediately suspicious that no one had noticed this before, but when they asked the quarry mistress she simply shrugged and said, ‘There’s lots of stuff out in the desert; it’s probably a ruin or something.’

The party continued on to the quarry for now, but it was clear they were interested in whatever was out in the desert. The quarry was a straight-edged open cut mine. The redstone quarried here always split in straight geometrical lines, so there was a set of steps leading down, and a handful of tired workers who hadn’t heard the news yet about the Giant Metal Cross. Chronus asked about which face was being quarried two weeks ago, and eventually they found themselves at a redstone wall, speaking with a miner who was quickly brought into the fold of the Giant Metal Cross after a healing touch from Gabriel.

The party discovered that nothing unusual had been dug up here in the last two weeks. Chronus used his ‘scan’ ability to look inside the wall and discovered a powerful destructive energy source in a nearby block. He asked the quarryman to dig it out, and ended up with a new cypher, a bracelet that allowed him to sweep a destructive ray at long distance. This cypher, of course, pushed him over his limit of 3, and I took this opportunity to evoke some paranoia, asking him what he was doing with his extra cypher, and picking up percentile dice while flicking to the relevant table in the rulebook.

This prompted Chronus to dig up his least interesting cypher, a pill that granted the user 28 hrs of being able to speak and be understood by anyone. He gave this pill to the quarry mistress for safekeeping, and kept the new cypher for himself.

While the party discussed how there didn’t seem to be anything interesting here, Chronus went over to a large quarry bin, full of discarded scrap, and used his ‘scan’ power again to try to find anything of interest. I decided he found another pill cypher that had been missed here, but when he dug it up and handed it to the quarry mistress for safekeeping she refused to take another cypher. I ruled internally that if adventurers could keep a maximum of two cyphers before they started to interfere with each other, it was reasonable that a regular NPC could only carry one. The quarry mistress’s fear got the better of her and she wouldn’t take it.

Note that this prompted the players to consider the feasibility of hiring porters to carry spare cyphers around. I strongly suggest quashing this kind of clever rules bending before it gets out of hand.

Unable to have his extra cypher kept safe, Chronus returned to the bin and buried it in a corner, for if he needed to come back.

The party spoke to the quarry mistress about investigating the home of the first victim of the nightmares, the quarryman who had reported them and a week later killed himself. She had no problems with it, saying the Aeon Priests had investigated and taken any evidence back to the tower. This was my attempt to gently remind the players to go to the tower and investigate, but they ignored me.

On the way to the house the party saw that someone was selling a table of Tiny Metal Crosses already. Gabriel said, ‘I heal the small girl’. I’d not described who was running the table, but the ‘say Yes’ rule of improvisation kicked in and so yes, there was a little girl and I had him heal her. The whole town seemed to be abuzz with renewed religious fervour.

At the home of the deceased, Chronus scanned the area to find where the suicide had occurred, but the house was empty and being cleaned, with nothing of real interest in the area, although they did find the remains of the blood stain. The party realised pretty quickly that there was nothing to be found here, and so they reminded each other of the tantalising glimpse of light on the horizon that they had spied earlier in the desert. The quarry mistress said she could arrange some transport in the form of aneen, pack animals and horse-analogues, which the party thought was a grand idea.

This is a good opportunity to discuss another aspect of Numenera preparation: language. Although the world is steeped in technology, the book is very specific in warning against relatable technological words. Don’t say ‘robot’, say ‘automaton’. Don’t compare things to 21st century objects like cars or cows or horses. Say ‘carriage’ or ‘skiff’ or ‘ruminant’. Don’t say ‘computer’, say ‘mechanism’ or ‘calculating device’ or similar. When we evoke the technological we don’t want to allude to hyper-advanced technology but rather mystical post-apocalyptic stuff. Think more ‘Dune’ and less ‘Starship Troopers’.

So when we have animals such as these aneen, I just wanted to say ‘horses’ or ‘horse-like’ animal, or ‘steed’. Without having the players steeped in the Numenera glossary, throwing words out like aneen doesn’t work; as an old writing rule says, ‘If it’s functionally a horse, call it a horse so the reader knows. No need to manufacture a name.’

Well, a billion years in the future it does matter. Horses are long extinct. The very existence of mammals in any form is a shocking miracle in itself. In the Ninth World we are twice as far from modern day humanity as modern day humanity is from the first multicellular life. This is deep time, people.

So I advise that you construct a glossary of terms such as aneen and let your players know in advance what these things are. The gaming session flavour stays truer to the game if you don’t break out and say, ‘Yeah, they’re kinda like horses’ (as I did).

Next: The Adventure Continues

Numenera and its logo are trademarks of Monte Cook Games, LLC in the U.S.A. and other countries. All Monte Cook Games characters and character names, and the distinctive likenesses thereof, are trademarks of Monte Cook Games, LLC. Content derived from Monte Cook Games publications is © 2013-2014 Monte Cook Games, LLC.

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