Do Not Let the Dice Fall Where They May

Do Not Let the Dice Fall Where They May

I see a lot of people confusing Numenera, which uses a d20 (also a d6 and a d10) with the d20 System. I thought that might happen, but I figured as soon as people played the game, they would realize that it’s completely different (because it is) and it would no longer be an issue.

I have written about why I used the d20 in the past. In short, I created a system using a d20 mainly because of the affection and identification gamers have with it. However, I underestimated some of the psychological connections that some people understandably have with the die and how the d20 System works.

The confusion comes from what constitutes a “bad roll” and perhaps even the importance of die rolling in the first place. All you have to do is look at the Difficulty Chart in Numenera to see that things are drastically different. While “DCs” and “ACs” in the d20 System essentially start at 10 and go up, the target number for task resolution in Numenera starts at 3. That means the only rolls on the d20 that are inherently “bad” are 1 and 2, while in the d20 System, basically any single digit is a “bad” roll.

But the difference between the Cypher System and d20 System is far more fundamental than that, because the very nature of the task resolution system for Numenera is the inverse of the d20 System. In the d20 System, you start with the roll and then go from there, adding modifiers from character abilities, situational constraints, spells, etc. The die roll starts the conversation.

Player: I want to climb up to the ledge.
GM: (The GM determines that this will be a DC 15) Give me a roll.
Player: Ugh. I roll a 7. But I have +8 to my Climb skill. So 15. That’s not too bad.
GM: The wall you’re trying to scale is a bit icy and slick. That’s going to be a -2 penalty.
Player: Bob’s character is already at the top reaching down to give me a hand, can that give me a bonus?
GM: Sure. +2.
Player: That makes it a 15, then. Do I make it?
GM: Yes, just barely.

Numenera is the opposite. You have the conversation first. This is something that I’ve had to instruct a lot of people about when I’m introducing the game. Players expect that they have to just roll for everything. Rolling, however, is dangerous. Rolling can mean that you fail an action that maybe you shouldn’t fail. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the Numenera conversation:

Player: I want to climb up to the ledge.
GM: (The GM determines that this is a Difficulty 3 action.) How are you going to do it?
Player: I’m trained in climbing, and Bob’s character is reaching down to help me up.
GM: Okay. Both the training and the assistance reduce the difficulty by a step each. (This makes it Difficulty 1.)
Player: Does it still seem like it’s going to be tricky?
GM: There’s still a chance of failure. It’s wet and slick. That’s probably going to make it harder by a step. (Difficulty 2)
Player: I’m going to apply a level of Effort, then.
GM: (Knowing that this makes it Difficulty 1, which only has a target number of 3) Time for the roll.
Player: I roll a 7.
GM: You easily climb up.

So in the Numenera conversation, the 7 is a triumph, not a worry, when it shows up, because the conversation’s already happened. Whereas with the other example you start with the 7 (which is a worry) and go from there. They’re both successes, but it’s a different approach. More importantly, in Numenera there’s more a player can do than just live with a roll—specifically, applying Effort. Since there’s rarely any adds or subtractions to the actual roll, the “lower” end of the die becomes valuable real estate in its own right. Even a 3 can be a success. But here’s the thing. The even more important thing. The key to the whole issue as far as Numenera is concerned.

The goal is to not roll the dice at all.

I’m going to use a term here that makes some people roll their eyes and turn away, but bear with me. Rolling dice can take away player agency. Sure, rolling dice is fun and it can be dramatic, but it’s dramatic because there’s a chance of failure. (Which means that even Difficulty 1, with a target number of 3, has drama.) If there’s something a character should just be able to do—or conversely, something a character should never be able to do—in Numenera you should not be rolling dice.

That’s why in Numenera, a great climber doesn’t add a bonus to his climb roll. She negates the need to roll at all by reducing the difficulty. When people read the system (without playing it, usually) and then say to me, couldn’t you accomplish the same thing by just adding +3 for each asset, skill, level of Effort, and so on, I say no. Because it changes the way the game actually plays. Awesome climbers don’t make rolls to make easy (or even moderate) climbs. That’s what player agency is. If a player decides to make an awesome climber, they should be able to climb.

And that’s what applying Effort in Numenera is all about as well. The player decides that a particular task is one that she really doesn’t want to fail, so she focuses her energies on it, at the expense of other tasks that might come along later. Imagine, in the climbing conversation above, if the player had applied two levels of Effort to the task. There would have been no roll at all. Now, sometimes the task is still so great that applying Effort doesn’t mean auto success, it means a greater chance of success. But it is still giving agency based on the idea that the player is doing everything she can to take the whim of the dice out of the equation.

That’s why I say in the GM section of the book, that it is a bad habit for GMs (in Numenera) to reply to a player’s stated action with “give me a roll” as a reflex. Because the first issue should actually be, does there need to be a roll for this at all? Does an Olympic gymnast roll to see if he can leap over a simple fence? No, he just does it. GMs shouldn’t worry that the game isn’t interesting or challenging without making the PCs roll for everything. The interesting and challenging parts—the drama and the tension—don’t come from simple stuff the capable and skilled PCs should just be able to do. The fact that climbing a simple wall or leaping a fence is easy actually heightens the drama of the real challenge that comes later—scaling the sheer cliff in the blizzard, fighting the horrible, gigantic beast, or convincing the mayor to free the prisoner with an impassioned speech.

In the end, Numenera is designed to use the d20 in a pretty different way than other games. Sure, everyone cheers when they see a 19 or 20, and moans when they roll a 1, but overall the dice are likely tossed far less often and the results often have very different meanings. The game is about empowering both players and GMs to look beyond the whims of randomness and creating a story that is interesting, exciting, and fits with their conception of their characters and the world in which they live.

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