|Art by Grzegorz Pedrycz|
Running Numenera is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. As a game master you have to paint a picture of a world and culture that are billions of years removed from our own. The people of the Ninth World live in a medieval state, but are awash in artifacts of the previous worlds. The inhabitants of those previous worlds are unknowable, and their technologies are charged with super-science and magic.
Numenera Discovery, the latest core rulebook for Numenera, has an entire chapter dedicated to the topic, and I feel like I’ve pored over it more than the Cypher System ruleset itself. I’m relatively new to Numenera, having recently decided to pick up that beautiful Discovery & Destiny slipcase off of my bookshelf. After a few one-shots, I’m now a couple of sessions into an ongoing campaign. We’re certainly having fun, but we’re also dealing with the underlying dissonance at every turn.
One tool handed to you by the Numenera books is imagery. The adventure collections come equipped with “Show ‘Ems,” beautiful pieces of art that depict particularly alien vistas to accompany the various scenarios. I’ve been augmenting these with art scoured from Pinterest, ArtStation, and DeviantArt, and that’s been working particularly well. It’s not always a rousing success, however. Horses aren’t a thing in the Ninth World, so our adventurers have set off into the wilds mounted on Aneen. According to Discovery, "Tall and muscular, aneen are bipedal herd animals...Aneen have tiny forelimbs and small claws that are neither particularly sharp nor good for grasping.” That’s certainly a bit vague, but couple it with the creature art and the players immediately began to call them “duck-faced tauntauns.”
Monte Cook suggests a game mastering rule to combat the dissonance: “Describe rather than define, and if you must define, never quantify.” OK, I can dig that, he wants us to keep things weird and play up the unknowable aspect of the setting. In our first session, this went off the rails pretty quickly. The characters were tasked with recovering an artifact from a band of abhuman murden. One step into the murden camp and the players were calling the murden “psionic kenku.” I mean, that’s a pretty dead-on D&D reference for how these abhumans look and behave. That artifact? I described it as a metallic, oblong cylinder with pointed ends.” Nope, it was a “silver football.” Touché.
This is party of great, self-aware players, so we discussed a group effort to tackle the dissonance head-on. Avoid modern words to describe Ninth World ephemera, stop using fictional sci-fi cross-references to put things in context. We can do this. I appreciate the players’ efforts to immerse themselves in the setting. I’ll let you know how the goes.