What’s All the Hype and Where’s All the Lite?

Over the weekend, game designer Monte Cook post a defense of his Numenera mechanic, the d20 system he invented for his newest role-playing game, saying that it’s not like other d20 games. He’s right, it’s not exactly like the other d20 games, but it’s pretty derivative and debatable how original the system is. And I think this puts the finger on what I dislike about Numenera: it’s not what it claims to be, either mechanical or narrative. The Internet buzzes with praise for this game, and Monte’s rabid fan base has swallowed the 416 page rule book hook, line, and sinker. They say it’s beautiful; it is – Monte spent a ton of the kickstarter money on art, which is a good thing. They say it’s a great setting, and I think it might be, depending very much on what you do with it. A sci–fi fantasy bash up that is equal parts Savage Sword of Conan and Heavy Metal magazine. No one, however, claims it’s well written, because it isn’t. I’ve read the rule book, slogged my way through the miserable opening fiction, and trudged through character generation, the game system rules, and the magic items (renamed cyphers). And all in all, at the end of the day, it’s just D&D lite with a lot of hand waving.

This isn’t bad, but when Numenera is billed as the next best greatest thing since sliced AD&D, I have to protest because it’s not. A Goodreads reader accurately commented, “what’s all the hype”, and I agree. This is fighters, magic-users, and thieves (glaives, jacks, and nanos), who adventure to gain levels (tiers) by collecting loot (cyphers and artifacts collectively known as numenera). The game says it’s not about combat, it’s not about “killing things and taking their loot”, yet examples used to explain the rule system are primarily combat examples. The opening fiction includes combat. The example of play includes combat. Not a combat game? It’s totally a combat game. True, characters don’t gain experience from killing monsters and taking their stuff, just taking their stuff. So, that’s all fine, but when you (the author) tell me that this isn’t a game about combat and collecting loot, and then give me a game about combat and collecting loot, I’m a little peeved.

Numenera is a D&D Lite game about fighting abhumans (goblinoids) and creatures (monsters) and finding cyphers (magic items). There is a bunch of hand waving and refusing to explain parts of the game within its own fictional setting. What are cyphers? Um, advanced technology that characters consider magic and don’t worry about it anyway. How many cyphers can your character carry? 2. Why only 2? Because more breaks the game and the rules can’t handle it. Really. That’s what he writes (page 279). Then, in a grand step away from rules-lite mechanics, he includes a complicated chart that a player has to roll against when his character collects too many cyphers, with a decent chance that the cyphers explode and wound the character. So, I’m supposed to collect cyphers, but if I collect too many the game penalizes me? Yes, that is correct. Again, I’m peeved. Monte wants players to play this game a certain way, collect and use cyphers, not merely collect. Well, that’s not role-playing, that’s puppet-mastering. That’s not player choice, that’s contrived fiction with a captured audience. And if you want puppet-mastering, if you want railroading in its most obvious, onerous case, read The Devil’s Spine, Monte’s opening adventure packet for Numenera. It regularly takes away a player’s choice and then argues that railroading makes for a better game anyway, because obviously the game writer can write a better adventure that one that might organically develop in play.

And yet, because I’m uncomfortable merely bitching about this game, I will play it! The family gang and I will make characters and play. I could be completely wrong and this could be a great game, and I’m willing to admit that. Even though this looks bad, and reads bad, I will still taste it and report back on the flavor. “Pass me the Kool-Aid, Jim.”  And if I’m wrong I’ll recant completely. I’ll personally email Mr. Cook and apologize for badmouthing his game (on my little blog with 15 followers and 5 regular readers – you know who are).

Speaking or rules lite, I was reading The Northern Crusades (Penguin Books, 1997) in preparation for my Baltic Seas campaign, and I read about the Danish invasion of the island of Rugen in 1135, in which they captured the capitol Arkona, destroyed the four-faced statue of the pagan god Svantovit, and forced Christian baptism on the survivors. According to Mr. Mark Shirley, who wrote the Bjornaer chapter for Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults, the magi (wizards) of House Bjornaer (one of the subdivisions of wizards) have their domus magna (headquarters) on Rugen. Wouldn’t it be fun to run a short campaign in which the players are Bjornaer magi dealing with the mundane invasion of their island refuge? I think it would be fun, yes. Will I do it? No. Why? Because Ars Magica doesn’t lend itself to quick games, to short flights of gaming fancy. It’s bulky, unwieldy, and terribly complex. Just making a character for play takes several hours of not days. If anything needs a rules-lite version, it’s Ars Magica.

Think of it; read a compelling sentence in a history book, think it would make a good setting for a few years of Ars campaigning (game-time years, not real years), call up a few friends, and hit the ground running. One of the nice things about early D&D was that it took minutes to make a character. Yes, most of them were similar, but within 15 minutes you and your first-level mates were in the dungeon swinging (and missing) at goblins. What if Ars Magica characters could be made in a few minutes?

So here it is Shrove Tuesday and I’m thinking of what I should give up for Lent. I usually give up ice cream and/or potato chips. Hey, that’s a big deal. I don’t have any vices any more and ice cream and potato chips are my two remaining indulgences! What if I gave up a little free time as well and in 40 days knocked out a rules-lite version of Ars Magica? Why not. It’s totally heretical and the fans will scream – “Where is all the depth!” – but heresy is fun. I remember the days when Ars author Michaël de Verteuil regularly offered heretical advice in his column in Mythic Perspectives, the game’s fanzine of the day. (I could be wrong. The game has had many fanzines. But I’m sure it was Michaël.) He was certainly berated for his views – damn fans – but I found them entertaining. So I’ll follow in his same ignominious footprints and likely exit stage left, just like he did.

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13 Responses to What’s All the Hype and Where’s All the Lite?

  1. mikemonaco says:

    Huh. I have been hearing very generic things about how great Numenera is and this really makes me think WTF. Can’t wait for your after-action report.

  2. Would it be easier to just play 1st or 2nd edition of ArM?

    • Matt Ryan says:

      I don’t own 1st ed. and haven’t read 2nd ed. in years. It’s a good suggestion though, and I’ll look at 2nd ed. as I pull and yank from previous editions.

  3. That said, I’d love to see what you do with rules lite ArM.

  4. There is a need for an Ars Magica Primer or starting Saga with cut down rules. IIRC Timothy developed something like this for an Australian RPG convention and is interested in these sort of introduction to Ars concepts.

    More than just rules eg Ars Lite, there is a real need to attract new players to the game in order to keep it living and breathing ie. a need to recognise this current perception of the game and address it head on.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      This won’t be that. I agree that ArM5 needs a foothold adventure/saga for new players, but I’m going to slash and burn the system and see what happens.

      Thanks for contributing!

  5. Timothy says:

    Yeah, I tried it. It’s hard, because the magic system is hard to condense. David’s method for “Promises, Promises” was just basically “You want to do spontaneous magic? Ask your storyguide!” and of all of the ones I’ve tried, that worked best. For me, that’s a problem actually, because when you give people a sheet of possible spells, they tend to sit there staring, looking for the right tool for the situation you are presenting, instead of just breaking out the sort of creative stuff we get out of sponters.

    Ars is a system where you nickel and dime yourself up to having a big bonus on your dice roll. What you’d do instead is get rid of most of the +1 here, +3 there stuff, and just lower the Ease factors. Also, a lot of the complexity could be drained out of combat by saying “Sword? Spear? Don’t care. Init +0 Atk +0 Dfn +0 Dmg +0”. Sure it means you can’t build for Initiative, or for Damage, or what have you…but who really does?

    I’d be really interested in seeing what you come up with.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      I completely agree with you about the nickel and dime approach to bonuses. Maybe bulky, complex games are like that. The current D&D stuff certainly is, Pathfinder, etc., and folks seem to gobble that up. But I don’t want to “fix” ArM5. This is just a simple exercise in creative thinking and daring exploitation. Hack and slash the system and see what happens.

      Contributions welcome, thanks Timothy!

  6. I’m definitely looking forward to your after play report of Numenera. I’ve noticed the hype, but I tend to shy away from games that seemed tied to a specific setting. It’s interesting to read a first impression of it that isn’t overwhelmingly positive, however.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      Keep in mind I could be totally wrong and it is in fact a great game. Various character sheets look simple and elegant, and I like that. I’m rousting the party now and shooting for a game in a week.

  7. I’ve been pondering for many years a set of broad alterations to Ars, primarily because I think it has depth which is utterly brilliant, but that is part of the huge barrier to entry for players. Over got some scratch notes on simplification somewhere. I’d love to see what you come up with.

    With that change I was also pondering a wholesale setting change too. Take out the Mythic Europe backdrop, so it removes the pandering to historical accuracy. I love Ars but I also like settings which don’t give a huge variety of powers and then say “please don’t break the setting” by using them.

  8. As for Numenera, I thought it was another d20 clone. I mean it’s not Hunter Planet, Lunch Money, Rus, or My Life With Master – so what is so innovative?

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