NPCs in Numenera

So, early on in the Kickstarter for Numenera we added a bestiary as a stretch goal. This bestiary will be filled with creatures, but will also have some characters and character types, because not everything that you interact with is a “monster.” Plus, in the Ninth World, some things that seem like monsters are actually potential allies, and some things that look harmless most certainly are not.

NPCs (including creature of all types) in Numenera do have the same kind of stats as PCs. As simple as it is to make a Numenera player character, it’s far simpler than creating a PC. Or, to put it a different way, each NPC is precisely as complicated to make as the GM wants it to be.

Everything in the game system can be given a rating from 1 to 10. This is true of an animal, a town guard, a door, or an artifact. Basically, the GM is deciding on this rating for his or her world’s own internal consistency. From a game mechanics standpoint, there is no right or wrong. (If you’re coming from 3rd or 4th Edition D&D, I can’t stress this enough.) This rating is much more important from a verisimilitude standpoint than a mechanical one. While characters too have ratings (levels), there is only a casual correlation. It’s a handy guideline, but not a rule. You don’t just use rating 1 stuff if the PCs are level 1. You use rating 1 stuff if it’s appropriate to whatever’s going on in the story. Your beginning characters in Numenera will likely encounter stuff with a rating of 3 or 4 right out of the gate. And maybe more. It’s okay.

Once you’ve decided on the rating, you get a target number. Target numbers are basically the rating times 3. That’s its target number for everything. So in a fight, a PC fighting a level 4 opponent has to roll a 12 or higher to hit, a 12 or higher to dodge from the foe’s blows, and a 12 or higher to affect it with some weird effect from a device. Even if it has special stuff going on, it’s stilled keyed off that number. If it’s poisonous, the roll needed to resist its poison is 12. Etcetera etcetera. Its entire “stat block” is 12.

Sound easy?

Of course, to keep things interesting, there are other factors, but each is unique to a given NPC. Some NPCs might be rated as being really good with a particular attack, and thus gain a bonus to their base number. So a level 4 automaton that blasts foes with an extremely accurate energy blast might be a 12 on everything, but a 15 with its blaster.

NPCs and creatures, of course, can have all kinds of weird powers or weaknesses, and they might have armor or special weapons. But these exceptions are all layered on top of an extremely simple core with a single default score. So they never get very complex. The point of this kind of design is to keep things really, really simple unless they deserve to be more complex. If the town guard is gullible, your GM notes might say, “Level 3 guard (9), can be easily tricked (6).” You added a tiny bit of complication with that last clause, but you did it because it makes the encounter with him more interesting and to quantify the world you’re crafting. So the tiny complication is absolutely worth it. Adding notes and mechanical alterations because of the guard’s cooking skill and his predilection with metallurgy probably isn’t worth it.

And best of all, really straightforward creatures, like the dreaded stiletto beetle and its nasty stinger, can be represented entirely by one number with no exceptions, and it will still be an interesting, quick encounter.

This also tells you how characters interact with the rest of the world. If a locked door has a rating of 5, it will take a roll of 15 or higher to bash it down. Or pick it. Or phase through it. Or whatever. Like an NPC, these simple stats can be altered with specific exceptions. So the level 5 steel door might have a substandard lock that only requires a 9 to pick, for example.

It’s important to note that creature toughness or any other kind of difficulty in the game is a matter of the GM giving meaning to the fictional reality of the setting, not performing game mechanical mathematic surgery. There is no concept in Numenera of “a challenge of N level is appropriate to a party of N+X level characters” or anything of the sort. As I’ve written earlier, PCs don’t get XP based on defeating foes or bashing down doors. So there is no right or wrong.

That said, the Numenera corebook will be overflowing with examples of standard NPCs, objects (particularly cool numenera artifacts), challenges, creatures, and so forth. And the  follow up books will present even more. These will work as references, but more importantly as a way to teach GMs to create their own–even on the fly.

The point here is to keep the game focused on the story and the cool ideas. If the GM doesn’t have to keep a lot of numbers and die rolls in his head, he can spend his time thinking about what might happen next, or what the implications of PC actions might be. And if the “stat blocks” aren’t bogged down with lots and lots of numbers–many of which might never come into play in the relatively short encounter–there is more room to discuss the cool ideas behind the NPC. In other words, if you encounter a woman who can walk through walls and remove single memories from your mind with her touch, that’s the cool and important stuff we want to focus on.

Numenera is a game about the characters and ideas that make great stories.


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Monte Cook
Monte Cook

Monte Cook has written hundreds of roleplaying game products, along with numerous short stories, novels, nonfiction titles, and comic books. He is probably best known for his work on such notable titles as Planescape, Ptolus, the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which he codesigned with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams), Arcana Evolved, and of course Numenera and the Cypher System. He is a cofounder of Monte Cook Games, and is our lead designer.