Thursday, October 03, 2013

If We're in Heorot, it Must be Wotan's Day

There's been some fun chatter about calendars and their uses over at G+ lately, resulting in a post by Oddysey over at her blog. She mentions that she has no idea what the date actually is in the Doom & Tea Party's game. By the in-game calendar it is, in fact, the 20th day of the Second Moon of Spring. But that's not terribly important.

Generally speaking, in your standard Old School game there are few reasons why players worry about dates and time. The first is logistics: do they have enough food, principally. And food is measured in days-worth of rations. So knowing how many days it will take to travel from point A to point B, or how many days travel away from civilization they are is what they're really worried about.

And for that, you don't really need any calendar at all. But there are other issues that might make knowing specific dates important. Some of these are cultural: festivals, legal proceedings, birthdays, stuff like that. Some are merely window-dressing; are the peasants in the fields harvesting, sowing, mending fences or what? Some are logistical; are the roads smooth and dry, muddy swamps, or under two feet of snow?

But a few issues can be of vital importance to adventurers. The two that repeatedly pop up in my campaigns are the times of sunset and sunrise, and the phases of the moon. And for those, you need something a touch more robust. But only a touch. You'll notice that the calendar for Doom & Tea Parties is ridiculously simple and terribly unrealistic. But it makes it very easy to know both the season and the current phase of the moon. No math or tables required.

I did something very similar in my Numenera game. The setting dictates 28 hour days and a 313 day year. So I made that as simple as I could, with four seasons divided into three moons, and each moon having 26 days. The full moon falls on the 13th day, and the new moon falls on the 26th. The extra day is New Year Day (falling between the last day of the Third Moon of Autumn and the first day of the First Moon of Winter), keeping things both easy-peasy and in line with the official setting dictates. And again, no funky names for days or months. The Third Occlusion of the Octopus means nothing, but everyone has some idea of what the 20th day of the Second Moon of Spring ought to be like.

As it turns out, one of my players chose Howls at the Moon as their Focus, so knowing when the moon is full is actually pretty important. He doesn't have to guess, I don't have to fiddle with tables or calculations, and life is good. This is the Zen of the Lazy DM. ;)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Great Gobs o' Goo!

Here's an example of cyphers for Numenera, and one artifact at the end. Level is a basic catch-all for anything you might want to do with the item: reverse engineer it, identify it, add it to another device, or whatever. External just describes how it's applied. Other cyphers are internal (like pills or injections), wearable (like jewelry or temporary tattoos), or useable (basically describing hand-held devices like tricorders or flashlights). Depletion is the roll you make every time the item is used to see if you've used it up or broken it.  If you roll a 1, this is the last time the artifact works properly, if at all.

Anoetic means the cypher is fairly simple and stable: it's a pill or has only one button and is extremely easy to use.  Occultic cyphers have lots of levers and controls on them and are more complex to use, though generally only one combination of settings has any noticeable effect, and it's still a one-use item.

Goo actually describes a variety of substances that are usually found in soft synth tubes.  The tubes, even empty, are greatly prized by explorers for their near indestructibility while their bright colors make empty tubes excellent toys for children.  Being brightly labeled (usually), most folks enjoy a +2 on rolls to identify a tube of goo.

The tubes tend to be about an inch across and almost four inches long.  They’re pinched closed at both ends.  One end is just sealed soft synth, and it’s as difficult to pierce or damage as the rest (Difficulty 7 to penetrate or pierce) while the other end sports a brightly colored tab of stiff synth.  To use most goo, you tear off the stiff synth tab then squeeze the goo out onto yourself.  With only a bit of coaxing, the goo will spread to cover a single being.  There’s usually more than enough goo to cover a single creature or object, though attempting to spread the goo out over multiple uses or people causes the stuff to immediately decompose.

Decomposing goo usually liquefies and slides cleanly off the person or object it’s been put on [GM intrusion: the goo stains clothing it’s been spread over.] or evaporates in a quickly dissipating cloud that smells like mulch or a bog.  This decomposition tends to be rather sudden when it happens.

Goo spreads to cover the entire body in a shiny, clean layer.  It will go over clothes and does the cover the face, smoothing over the features to make who ever’s wearing it unrecognizable.  However, those wearing goo can (usually) see and breathe through the goo easily.

All goos are anoetic cyphers.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
Effect: This midnight blue goo forms small, rigid scales across its entire surface.  The result is heavy armor that lasts for 14 hours.  If it’s spread directly across the skin, it imposes no penalties; if spread over clothes it imposes the penalties of medium armor.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
Effect: Translucent crystal blue, this goo must be spread across bare skin to be effective.  It tingles on the skin and massages the dermis and higher layers of muscle.  It improves the wearer’s Edge for all stats by +1, but won’t raise any above 3.  It lasts for 14 hours and evaporates into a minty-fresh cloud.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
Effect: This rich green goo restores +1 point to any one stat every minute.  After half-an- hour, it will restore a level of health, then dissipate.

Level: 1d10
External: goo
Effect: This goo seals a person in a tight cocoon of purple goo.  Legs are pressed together and arms are trapped at the sides.  Those outside the cocoon can change the translucence of the goo (blocking the sight of the captive), as well as how well, if at all, sound travels through it (though they cannot suffocate the captive).  The cocoon lasts for 28 hours, or until someone outside dissipates it.  From inside, it’s a Might feat with a difficulty of 8 to break out of the cocoon.

Level: 1d6
External: goo
Effect: The translucent crimson sensation goo heightens the sensations of anyone wearing it.  While it can reduce the Difficulty of a challenge to a character’s tactile sensitivity (lock-picking, safe-cracking, reading Braille, and the like), it also reduces the difficulty of torturing, seducing or otherwise influencing the gooed character via touch.  In addition, anytime a character wearing this goo is hurt in combat, the sensation is so overwhelming that they must make an Intellect check against a Difficulty of 4 or pass out for 1d6 minutes.  This goo last 14 hours + 2d6 hours.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
Effect: X-ray goo is translucent green and glows with a cold electric light.  It allows others to inspect the internels of whatever or whoever is covered.   It lowers by one the Difficulty of any task where such x-ray vision could be useful, such as picking locks, diagnosing disease or internal injuries, or the like.  It lasts four hours.

Level: 1d6
External: goo
Effect: Once smeared on a body, this opaque goo writhes with brilliant colors in wild, mind-bending patterns.  The colors and patterns appear to be affected by the mood of the wearer, but just how isn’t entirely clear.  Wearing this good impedes the vision of the wearer not at all, but it can be an asset in public performance tasks.

Level: 1d6
External: goo
Effect: Whatever this goo was originally designed to do, it’s toxic to most life in the Ninth World.  Anyone wearing this goo (which comes in a variety of colors) immediately suffers a wound equal to the level of the goo and then another every 5 minutes they continue to wear the stuff.  Removing this goo is often (50% of the time) easy, but the rest of the time it’s a Might task with a Difficulty of 4.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
Effect: While wearing this white goo, you’ll never be too hot.  Or too cold.  It keeps your body temperature constant, which for most people makes it feel like it’s a pleasant spring day.  It lasts 28 hours.

Level: 1d6+1
Form: a crystal and synth box six inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 16 inches deep.
Effect: this artifact has a panel on the top perforated with thousands of tiny, octagonal holes.  If a pound of organic matter is placed on that panel it will start to “melt” into the machine while an array of holographic controls will appear in the air over the machine.  Using it to get the goo you want is a Difficulty 7 Intellect challenge (anything that beats Difficulty 3 will produce a tube of goo, just not necessarily the one the user was trying to get).
Depletion: 1-10

[GM Intrusion: the machine spits out a goo with a completely blank label.  The only way to learn what’s in it is to use it.]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Numenera in the Wild

Ran my first game of Numenera last night. Character creation is quick and easy, but you have to be a bit careful as you go through to hit and understand every point. Weapon skills, for instance, work differently from other skills (not sure why) in that you start at a negative, and then train up to no modifiers before getting the usual modifiers. Also, since each of the three aspects (adjective, noun, and phrase) can overlap in certain areas, you need to go through each carefully to make sure you note everything, plus sometimes hopping back-and-forth to avoid redundancy. Even at our level of inexperience and with flipping around in the book, we went from concept to completed character in something like a half-hour.

The mechanics are fairly simple, but nearly all of it is in the hands of the players. This can cause some confusion. I’m working on a cheat-sheet of ways to lower target numbers for my players. Hopefully that’ll make things run more smoothly, though honestly they ran pretty smoothly last night.

It didn’t take ‘em long to discover the double-jeopardy of stat pools being both dice-roll modifiers and hit points. They were quick to utilize the environment to help them avoid dangers and to pit monsters against each other Harryhausen-style.

And yeah, Numenera has a definite old-school feel. It promotes rulings over rules. Its rules are fairly simple and few in number. There’s not much emphasis on gear (weapons, for instance, are categorized as small, medium, or large and that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about them; in the mechanics of combat, there’s no difference between an axe, a saber, and a spear). A monster’s stat line looks like this: steel spider [level 3(9), health: 9, Damage 3, Armor, see page 260]. As stated above, it encourages lateral thinking. The setting is atmospheric but also wide-open. And a good game requires an interesting locale.

Mechanically, the cyphers are central to the game. They provide most of the weird feel (so I think we’re going to see a lot of new ones, especially from folks who like a lot more weird in their games) as well as the best options for lateral thinking and planning.

But beyond them, the rules are not terribly interesting in-and-of-themselves. They do their job and then get out of the way. So if you’re used to running games where manipulating the rules largely is the game (3e and 4e, I am so looking at you), you’re likely to find Numenera a little flat there. Hell, I found Numenera a little flat there, and I tend to run Labyrinth Lord.

Mr. Cook calls Numenera a game about exploration. I think he’s right, but he certainly doesn’t mean it the way old-school D&D is a game about exploration. Numenera isn’t about logistics, encumbrance, or keeping strict time records. It is about solving problems through clever use of one-shot wonders, powers, and the environment.

And that means your Numenera game will largely rise or fall on the quality of your adventures. Interesting places with intriguing, open-ended challenges that give your players lots of room to play should be the order of the day. Think more Myst’s intellectual playgrounds and less of tactical challenges, linear stories, or even the dependable ol’ five room dungeon. A good Numenera location, whether it be an ancient ruin, a skyship, or a royal court, needs to be full of opportunities for players to be clever and challenges that encourage them to be so.

Yeah, ok, that’s rather vague, and I’m still teasing out just what that means in terms of location design, though at this point I’m pretty sure you should be designing locations more than adventures.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Unpacking Numenera's Cypher Economy

Two of my players have created characters, I’m waiting on two more, and then it’s nailing down a time and place for play (which will absolutely be after WorldCon sometime; just how long will depend on my recovery time).  As I work on a first adventure (because the four in the book are real stinkers) I’m going over the rules bit-by-bit in more depth.  One thing that stands out is how stats work.

Your character has three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect.  Unlike most beat-the-number mechanics, your stats, by themselves, don’t modify your rolls.  They do create pools of points you can burn to modify your rolls, however.  So if you have an Intellect of 16 and you’re attempting to break a really difficult code (Target Numbers are three times Difficulty, so a Difficulty of 5 means you need to roll a 15 or better on a d20), you can choose to burn 3 points of Intellect to lower the Difficulty by one (and thus the Target Number by 3; from 15 to 12 in our example).  This lowers an Intellect pool of 16 to 13.

So far, so good.  Having high stats means you can put forth more effort (ie burn points from your pools) to make tasks easier.  (Having the right skills, tools, situation, or help can also make tasks easier.)  Things get exciting when fights and traps and such kick in because these pools are also your hit points.  Get chewed on by a Broken Hound and you’ll lose 4 points from your Might pool.  Once your Might pool drops to zero, you start losing points from your Speed pool.  Lose all the points in all three pools and you’re dead.

But wait, there’s more!  Each time a pool goes to zero, things get worse in other ways as well.  Not only do you not have any points to use from that pool to make tasks (like avoiding getting bit) easier, you also endure additional penalties.  A character with one pool at zero is impaired.  It now costs four points from a pool to lower a Difficulty by one.  They also don’t get special bennies from rolling high.  A character with two pools at zero can do nothing but move, unless one of the pools at zero is Speed, in which case they can’t even do that.

Put it all together, and you’ve got one nasty death spiral

Death spirals are generally decried as a blemish on the face of RPGs. Sure, they make sense from a simulationist point of view, but they are generally not much fun at all. They drag out combat even as they make the final result more and more a foregone conclusion. So why did Mr. Cook include such a nasty one in Numenera?

While Mr. Cook and I appear to have diametrically opposed ideas as to what makes a good adventure, I have to give the man props for his rules-design skills. Numenera has some really slick design work in it and the interaction of the death spiral and the core themes is probably the crown jewel of the book.

First, the death spiral works in steps. Yes, every time you get hurt or burn points from a stat pool, you do have fewer to work with. However, as any veteran Magic or D&D player will tell you, the only hit point that really counts is the last one. Just so in Numenera; so long as you have enough stat points to apply effort or activate a power, it doesn't appear to matter whether or not this is the last time you can do it or the first of many times.

(This assumes that powers don't stack in synergistic ways. That is, if activating your Vapor Cloud power made using your Lightning Bolt power more effective, then it might begin to matter how deep your pool was. My brief glance through the powers didn't reveal any like that, but folks who've actually played might tell a different story.)

Granted, reaching zero in a pool is a double-whammy with the damage track penalties on top of not having any more points to burn from that pool. However, it's more a stepped spiral than a sloped one; that is, until you pass over the edge of the step, things really aren't much worse from the beginning of the step to the end of the step. This gives you lots of time to see the train coming while you still have the resources to get off the tracks.

And when I say “resources” I don't just mean points in your pools. Mr. Cook is also a big fan of single-use get-out-of-jail-free cards. In Numenera, there are two kinds of such. The first is EXP. You can burn an EXP to reroll any single roll, even one you didn't roll yourself. And you can do this as often as you have EXP to burn. (Which goes very well with Numenera's the-players-roll-all-the-dice. And note that since the players roll all the dice, no dice are rolled behind the screen.)

However, the biggie is the cyphers. Cyphers are one-shot techno-magic devices that work very much like potions in D&D. However, unlike potions, cyphers are not bought or sold in shops, and they should be so ubiquitous in adventures that each player should always have a handful in their packs:

Cyphers are found with such regularity that the PCs can use them freely. There will always be more, and they’ll have different benefits. This means that in gameplay, cyphers are less like gear or treasure and more like character abilities that the players don’t choose. This leads to fun game moments where a player can say, “Well, I’ve got an X that might help in this situation,” and X is always different. X might be an explosive device, a short-range teleporter, or a force field. It might be a powerful magnet or an injection that will cure disease. It could be anything. Cyphers keep the game fresh and interesting.

And, in fact, the cyphers range from generic healing potions to devices that muck with time, or cause the PC to teleport around like a blink dog, or open up small black holes! They can give you temporary skills (“I know kung-fu!”), allow you to remotely control machines with your mind, record audio or video, or fix a nearly-unmoveable spike anywhere (even midair). And those are just the ones in the core rulebook.

The cyphers are the key to making the game work differently than other games. Numenera isn’t about playing for years before a character is allowed to teleport, travel to other dimensions, lay waste to a dozen enemies at once, or create a mechanical automaton to do his bidding. He can do it right out of the gate if he has the right cypher.

Where most RPGs are built around a leveling treadmill, Numenera is built around cypher-churn. The players should constantly have new cyphers (that is, new abilities) to play with and plan around. The game stays fresh, the players stay eager for that next cool thing, and they also stay focused on out-of-the-box thinking and going places to get more cool cyphers.

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Monte Cook:

  • Stats as fuel for special abilities plus stats as hit points creates a potentially vicious (but stepped) death spiral. 
  • Players, recognizing the dangers of the death spiral, look for ways to solve problems that avoid burning stats. Cyphers are the obvious go-to solution but... 
  •  …each player can only carry so many cyphers before they start interacting in their packs in ways reminiscent of D&D's old potion miscibility table (only without any of the good options).
  • Luckily, cyphers are plentiful for adventurous types who go places cyphers can be found.

Thus you get a benevolent feedback loop of using cyphers and hunting cyphers. Unlike old school D&D where players could wind up buried in mountains of gold, you never run out of uses for cyphers and, in fact, are encouraged to find novel uses for the things.

How does this all actually work in play? I'm anxious to find out.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

For Numenera: the Nine Deadly Sins

Just a bit of background detail as I get ready to run a Numenera game. I have some players, a few PCs made up, and I'm working on our first adventure.

By the time Cilven was elevated to the office of the Amber Papacy, the Order of Truth was in crises. The Triangular Heresy was by this point deeply rooted in the foothills beneath Mencala Peak. The ever-escalating extravagant promises made to princes and patrons were beginning to take their toll on the Order's reputation. The resulting scandals, plus the continuing actions of Brechels and his acolytes, drove a wedge deeper and deeper between the Order and the Angulan Knights, which by this point were becoming an institution within the Steadfast.

No sooner had the mantle of papacy settled upon Cliven's shoulders than she immediately set to reforming the Order of Truth. Once again, all encyclicals were published in Truth and the library program was reinvigorated with additional funds and talent. For the first time, the Amber Papacy officially declared human breeding experiments to be anathema, a powerful first step in repairing the fraying alliance between the Order and the Angulan Knights.

Most importantly, Pope Cliven prescribed the until-now informal Nine Deadly Sins in her famous “On the Character and Future of the Order of Truth”:

Profligacy – In a world of limited resources, it is imperative that as many as possible be turned towards understanding the mechanics of the physical world and the numenera we have been blessed to study. Since the Princes and Peoples of the world will, as is their nature, waste so much on War, Pomp, and Comfort, it falls to the Aeon Priests to set the example by devoting as much time and treasure as they are able to study and research, setting aside the bare minimum required for health and well-being...

Suppression – Truth hidden is theft! It is an act of violence against your brothers and sisters, against the Order, against all of humanity, and against all rational and peace-loving beings of the Ninth World. To hide discovered knowledge for personal aggrandizement or out of perverted humility is to turn your back on truth and embrace falsehood. For indeed, a truth not put to the Test of Reproducibility is not a truth but merely a supposition...

Pride – Truth is greater than any one person, any clave, any priest or pope, even the entirety of the Order itself. When a supposition is put to the Tests, it is the supposition that is tested, not the one who has proposed it. Ego has no place in the Order and no place in a Test, either among the testers or the proposer...

Deceit – To falsify data is to murder knowledge, trust, wisdom, and peace!

Sloth – Failure to record even a single iota of data is worse than spending the whole day in bed. At least the sleeper does not waste the time of others, or threaten the veracity of investigation and experimentation...

Superstition – Only those things that can be measured can truly be known. To base one's propositions on hearsay, assumptions, hopes, or the actions of inscrutable beings of nebulous reality is to build one's house upon sand...

Carelessness – Never forget the Doom of Calleene! Never forget that you hold the lives of your brothers and sisters, your neighbors, perhaps even of the entire world in your frail hands! The search for Truth is never bloodless, but it is in your hands to hold back the toll of death and pain. It is your care, your precision, your cautious wisdom and safe habits which hold the Imp called Murrfee at bay...

Ignorance – We are all plagued by things we don't know. The world teases us with questions that assail and delight our minds. And yet we are also offered a banquet of knowledge and Truth upon which to feast. While none of us can know all that is offered, to choose ignorance when one could choose knowledge is worse than choosing death when one could choose life...

Hubris – While we are called to learn the entirety of Truth, we are not called to wield every power Truth puts in our hands. Understanding how something is done is not the same as understanding why, or even if, a thing should be done. We must honor the things that are, and understand why they are that way before charging headlong into “improvements.” First among these is the sanctity of the human form...

Armed with this list, and with the aid of the Angulan Knights, Pope Cliven set about purging the Order of Truth of its fascination with short-term goals and gains. Competition between priests for patrons and worldly prestige, while not eradicated, was at least held somewhat in check. Priests were given the opportunity to confess their wrongdoings and endure public scourging in order to prove their penitence. Those who refused were excommunicated. The Triangular Heresy was driven across the Black Riage and never heard from again. Brechels the Mad was devoured by a xi-drake and his principle lieutenants forced to endure public confessions and scourgings in the capitals of all the nations of the Steadfast.

- Excerpt from the Elder Debon's A History of the Amber Papacy

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Skeletal World of Numenera

Last week, JB asked, “However, I think I'm more interested in hearing how it it a far-out acid trip? Or a rather banal space-superhero show?” Good question, and one I’m not quite ready to answer as I’m only just now beginning to organize a game. But as I prepare, I did want to address the world that’s present to us in the books.

First, there’s the map. Right off the bat, you can see some odd geography. I know the Clock of Kala leapt right out at me, and right after it, the Great Slab, the star-shaped Caecilian Jungle, the apparently drowned Fengali Forest and the Cloudcrystal Skyfields. I discovered more that my eyes had missed as I read through the book. The places are as blatantly unnatural as they appear to be, and while it’s not hard to turn up the weirdness a notch or two, each is suitably odd and a great leaping-off point for further imaginative oddness.

But if you go from the map to the Player’s Guide, it’d be understandable if you were a little confused, especially if you’re used to Raggi or Zak-level weirdness. There’s almost nothing that weird in character creation. Oh, there are some slightly odd mechanics, sure, but as I mentioned before, it’s a class + adjective + schtick system. The adjective’s chosen are mostly standard RPG fare (strong, learned, charming, etc.) but for “mystical/mechanical” which refers to having a way with the numenera. It might mean you’re a cyborg of some flavor, but doesn’t need to mean that, so exactly how weird that is really depends on where the player takes it.

The schticks, called foci, tend to be weirder, but don’t have to be. Foci such as “carries a quiver,” “leads,” or “works the back alleys” are largely mundane, and could easily fit characters in games without a hint of the supernatural. Some push the boundaries of the ludicrous (I can’t help but think of this guy when I read “Rides the Lightning”) but nothing really feels out- there weird to me. As a for-comparison, here’s the 5th Tier Nano power, Knowing the Unknown:
Tapping into the datasphere, you can ask the GM one question and get a general answer. The GM assigns a level to the question, so the more obscure the answer, the more difficult the task. Generally, knowledge that you could find by looking somewhere other than your current location is level 1, and obscure knowledge of the past is level 7. Gaining knowledge of the future is impossible.

Now, compare this to Raggi’s “Contact Outer Sphere” which includes a chance for the sorcerer to be “possessed by a psychic beast roaming the interstellar ether between the caster and the answering star” or Cook’s Expert Rules “Contact Outer Plane” that could result in weeks of madness for the caster. If that was the extent of your exposure to Numenera (and it very well might be for some players) you could be excused for thinking that you had a Masters of the Universe knock-off in your hands.

The deeper you go, the stranger things get, however. You get undersea cities, a town of cast-off and misanthropic robots digging through giant drifts of spare parts for repairs (which is in turn coveted by the still-living decapitated head that rules another town), towns built atop crashed starships, temples built to honor frog-gods, giant crabs that feast on the latent brain activity of its prey, and, of course, the now infamous Nibovian wives. There are alien cyborgs performing tactical maneuvers for a war in which both sides died off who-knows-how-many millenia ago. You have artifacts with randomly determined drawbacks (a la 1e artifacts) and ray guns that inflict ecstatic pleasures on the target.

The weird is there, but exactly who deep you and your group wallow in it is very much up to you.

For instance, there’s a guy who breeds flying insects specifically to carry coded messages. How are these messages transported? The book doesn’t say. Could be in tiny scrolls on their legs, but the implication is that it’s more biological than that. Perhaps it’s in the way they chirp. Or in the pattern of spots on their backs. Or maybe if you eat the bug you’ll fall into a hallucinogenic trance in which you’ll witness a series of scenes that make perfect sense to target of the message.

A lot of the setting material is like that. It’s vague glosses that give you more than enough room to make it what you want it to be. The undersea city, for instance is described in maybe two pages, a single illustration, and no map. In your campaign, it could look like this, or this, or even this! And the whole setting is very much like that: thin glosses full of imagination-fuel you can take as far (or not) as you wish.

And, just for an added twist, Mr. Cook isn’t above playing games with people’s expectations. For instance, in a game where exploring is the principle theme (“Discovery is the soul of Numenera.”), an organization all about the rational search for, discovery, and study of the ancient artifacts that litter the world in order to make the world a better place ought to be the good guys. An organization run by a guy who calls himself the Amber Pope, its leaders “priests,” and who presents themselves to the populace as a religion because they’ve discovered people are “more likely to respect, admire, and obey” a religion should be the villains. In Numenera, they’re the same organization. Calling for a crusade in order to channel the war-like tendencies of the “civilized” nations outward instead of towards each other nicely encapsulates the nature of the Order of Truth. That the book has nearly nothing to say about the target of this crusade (and even leaves it an open question as to whether or not they even exist) is pretty much of a piece with the rest. Mr. Cook does the same with the Angulan Knights, invoking Gamma World’s Knights of Genetic Purity on the one hand while on the other describing them also as being dedicated to justice, irrespective of rank, wealth, or authority. That they ride white psychic dragons is just the icing on the cake.

The Angulan Knights and the Order of Truth are set up as social linchpins for the Ninth World. Whether they are villains, heroes, or a (fairly realistic) mix of the two is entirely up to the GM. Whether the Gaians that are the focus of the crusade are unfortunate innocents (perhaps the targets of extreme militant atheists if you play the Order of Truth as described in the book), a true threat to the world, or as complete fabrications is, again, entirely up to the GM.

What you decide to do with them, then, will decide the flavor of your campaign. And what you do with the artifacts and cyphers and settings and monsters will also decide the flavor of the campaign.

So I think the answer to BJ’s question is, “How much do you want it to be?” There’s nothing that says it needs to be phantasmagorical, but you can absolutely get there from here.

I should have a game under my belt in the near future and will be able to report more then.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Aesthetics of Numenera

I was a backer on the Numenera Kickstarter largely because it promised a game that combined “outside-of-the-box gameplay such as that found in Planescape, Dark Space, or Chaositech, the far-future stories of Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, or Jack Vance, or mind-blowing visuals like those found in the work of French artist Moebius”. I'm a huge fan of that science-fantasy Heavy Metal thing, so this looked right up my alley.

Because this is Monte Cook, the core book clocks in at a hefty 400+ pages. These include all the rules, a bestiary, maps, and setting info, so I'm not going to ding him too hard for that. I've not finished reading through the book yet, so I'm a bit hesitant to start chewing on the rules or even the setting too much. What have I read, however, strongly feels like this, and this, and this with a bit of this thrown in for good measure. Which, quite frankly, makes me rather happy.

As an important for-instance, let's take a look at PCs. By now, you've probably heard about Numenera's Mad Lib's, fill-in-the-blank character creation that results in you being able to describe your PC as a blankety blank who blanks. The middle blank is your type (aka class) of which there are three: glaive (aka fighter), nano (aka magic-user) and jack (which is a mix of the other two and/or skill-hound). So far, pretty basic.

The first blankety is your descriptor and it's words like “stealthy” or “intelligent” or “rugged.” Unlike a game like Fudge where that would be left fairly vague and give you bonuses when what you're doing involves your adjective, Numenera spells out when and what sort of modifiers you get, plus additional bonuses like gear and contacts that come with it, as well as the occasional handicap.

When you get to the last blanks, your character's focus, you're suddenly in superhero and “Masters of the Universe” territory. Like the descriptor, you pick your focus from a list of firmly-defined options. These include “bears a halo of fire,” “controls gravity,” “murders,” and “wields two weapons at once.” It's your character's schtick and, like Beastman's ability to control animals or Shadowcat's ability to go immaterial (both of which have analogs in the list of foci), it's going to go far in defining what your character does and perhaps even who they are. Especially since you're only allowed each focus once per group.

With 29 foci and three types, you can create 87 different templates to build your character around (though, granted, not all foci and types are good matches). Toss in your descriptor and you've got a lot of room to play in and create unique characters with. But the art that begins the chapter on character creation feels kinda generic:

Don't get me wrong, technically it's quite competent. Each individual is, in fact, individual with the nice use of the metal circles to tie them all together, but they feel terribly much like stereotypes: the haughty star-jock warrior, the haughty can-kick-your-ass daredevil babe, and the haughty tosses-energy-blasts ascetic mystic. I know exactly what their voices sound like, what their catch-phrases are, and what they can do in a fight, which is good for potential PC art, but it's less the (considerable) skill of the artist as how much they lean on stereotypes.

Now, maybe it's because of I've been spoiled by James Edward Raggi IV (NSFW) and Zak Smith (also NSFW), but when you make a game about Earth a billion years in the future, I expect art that's compelling and strange. And yes, it's a terribly not-fair comparison, but this is strange and compelling. This feels very much been-there-done-that. (And anyone who thinks that having the guys showing more skin than the gals will give them a pass on art like this (NSFW) or the torture piece are deluding themselves.) You're about a quarter of the way through the book, on page 105, when you finally encounter Keith Thompson's delightfully macabre Scribe and finally find art that lives up to the promise of the setting.

Before that, it's a lot of rather uninspiring digital art with heavy brush strokes of the sort that rules Deviant Art right now. The tough, angry warrior woman whose arm has been replaced by a weapon, Witchblade-style. The moody landscapes with the giant rocks and things floating in the air above it. You've seen it before.

Granted, when your setting is this strange (and the strange is there, it just takes a while to get to it) you need to give the players something familiar to latch on to, to identify with. This familiarity makes it comfortable, and possibly inviting. It makes it easy to imagine what sorts of things you can expect to find in this very stranger world, and who your character is going to be. Numenera is very careful about easing you into the strange. Again, character creation is a good example of this. Hey, your character's a glaive, but that's just a fancy word for fighter. You know what a fighter is. Nothing odd here, right? He's also graceful. Good balance, great hand-eye coordination. So a fighter who's good at dodging and landing just the right blow. You've seen his type before. He's wiry and quick and...

Oh, did I mention he has the power to travel “a long distance from one location to another almost instantaneously, carried by a bolt of lightning”?

Wait, what?

So I absolutely understand, and can even commend, the desire to offer readers something comfortable and familiar with the art. I just wish more of it felt compelling. There's some neat stuff in the art, but nothing that quite rises to the level of the imagination seen in the ideas in the book. And when your setting is this strange, you really need the art to carry a lot of the communication load.

Don't get me wrong, there's some neat art in this. Keith Thompson provides some excellent strangeness, as has already been shown. And some of the artists, folks like Samuel Arya, Helge Balzer, Guido Kuip, Brynn Metheny (who does some great creature design), Kieran Yanner (who did the cover), Mark Tarrisse, Cory Trego-Erdner, and Adrian Wilkins, can (and many do here) produce some really great atmospheric and moody art. I just can't help but feel that, for much of the book, the art design was restrained to keep things from getting too weird.

This might be a matter of taste as well. For a project like this, I would have aimed more for mood and maybe a bit less towards the you-are-there style I normally enjoy so much. There's some great black-and-white work that really seems to capture the flavor of the text, women in tall headdresses riding vicious lizards and such. My hope is that, with such a great stable of artists already involved in the project, Mr. Cook will let them really spread their wings and give us the bizarre and intriguing setting his words describe in future products.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In the Grim Reality of Future Warrior, There are Only Choices to be Made

Over on his Art of the Genre blog, Mr. Taylor ponders crafting new mechanics vs. re-framing off-the-shelf solutions:
In today’s RPG marketplace, with the advent of OGL, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply use an existing engine from something like Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, or Fate? Wouldn’t a proven system with a nice track record, and designed by folks with vast amounts of gaming design experience, be a better way to go than trying to cobble your own mechanic together?
Rules and mechanics matter. What do you want your players (not the characters, the players) to do in your game? Spend lots of out-of-game time designing characters that they then unleash in a handful of set-piece battles per session? Then Pathfinder’s probably the way to go. If the players are going to be organizing raids in which their characters lead groups of NPCs in disparate (and possibly desperate) missions, Savage Worlds is clearly the way to go. On the third hand, Fate would be an excellent choice for a rules-light, fast paced game that rarely gets bogged down in either tactical or rules-interaction minutiae.

Designers need to keep in mind that rolling dice is not playing the game. Rolling dice is where the play stops and everyone waits to see how random chance will rearrange the situation, at which point the players can start making decisions again. It’s this deciding that is the real meat of playing the game. That’s where the fun comes from. So what sorts of decisions do you want your players to be making? Design your mechanics to support (but not supplant) those decisions and you’re off to the races.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tentacle-monsters Beware! Free RPG Day is Nigh!

Don't forget that this Saturday is FREE RPG DAY!  Yaaaaaaaay! *does the Kermit flail*

Among the goodies on tap are a new LotFP adventure, a Swords & Wizardry adventure by Frog God Games, a Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure by Goodman Games, a Castle & Crusades adventure from Troll Lord and a Tunnels & Trolls adventure from Flying Buffalo.  Lots of yummy gaming goodness to go around.  Click here to find a store near you.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Jack Vance Has Passed Away

And I'm so out of it, I didn't notice until today.

We are, of course, speaking of the author who inspired the "Vancian magic" of D&D.  He's best known for his Dying Earth stories which took place in the latter years of Earth's existence, when the sun was red and swollen, a realm in which technology was so advanced, baroque, and strange that it really was indistinguishable from magic.

The Brits seem to have a gift for writing obituaries and the Guardian has a good one for Vance.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

DIY Goes to the Cloud

On Saturday at Comicpalooza, Skirmisher Publishing had a panel in which they promised to announce the “biggest thing in gaming for 2013!”  So what did they announce?

Quite possibly the biggest thing of 2013.  And maybe the two years on either side of it, if they can iron out the rough spots.

Basically, Bookforge is a web page for selling gaming content in the smallest usable increments: classes, feats, skills, encounters, monsters, weapons, spells, rooms, etc. via micropayments (dimes, nickels, etc.).  Instead of buying an entire book for US $30+, you can buy the class and two feats you’ll actually use for US 75¢.  

What sort of content will be up there?  They’re starting with the entire OGL SRD (which will be available for free).  In addition to the OGL, you can also find content from Pathfinder’s SRD.  There are options to search under 4e, Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, but those don’t appear to turn up any content as of this writing.  They’re also planning on including 5e Next, Savage Worlds, Fudge, d6 and Fate.  And they’ll put up everything they’ve published and have the appropriate rights for.  The goal is to have 100 authors and a million pieces of content by the end of the year.  

The content will be sortable by type, author, keywords, theme words (the example they mentioned was “power attacks”), genre, rule system, and the book it was originally published in.  They thought the last was important because they didn’t want you to accidentally buy something you already had on a bookshelf.  

You’ll likely still want to spend the pennies on it since you’ll be able to export collections of content in pdf form as sourcebooks.  The idea is clearly that you’ll create a homemade sourcebook for your campaign based on the content you pick and send it to your players so they have it to create characters with.  They also made mention of a dungeon generator that would work based on the options you picked, and that they were contemplating a character builder as well, though no ETAs on either just yet.

When you buy this content, you’ll have the option to record your own notes on it.  Some will come with art, others might come with notes from the author as well.  They’re talking about adding some clip art as well that you can buy to add to your sourcebooks.  

They will be accepting additional content.  They won’t put anything up until they’ve edited it and I forgot to ask what sort of turnaround they expected on the editing process.  The author’s cut will be something in the neighborhood of 20%.  They’re also promising complete transparency on sales and searches with the authors.  

So that’s it in a nutshell.  Frankly, if 5e Next is as flexible and modular as they’ve been claiming, this may be the killer ap that pushes it over the top.  Imagine being able to cobble together your race-as-class from Basic, monsters from the 2e Monstrous Manual, spells from The Book of Vile Darkness, and your favorite house rules from around the web, all bolted to a framework that embraces all of them without choking on crazy variety.  If WotC delivers that framework, Bookforge is the perfect compliment to it.

As of this writing, the interface is a bit bare-bones and clunky.  A search for "spidergoat" didn’t turn up anything and a search for "class" turns up a lot of feats and skills.  Searching "sleep" pulls up a lot of OGL and Pathfinder content but nothing under Labyrinth Lord or 4e yet.  I’m not sure how much of the content is actually up and how much of the trouble is my inexperience with the system.  In any case, there’s a lot of promise there, and if you’re playing any 3.x game, it’s clearly a valuable resource already.

Bookforge is described as being still in beta.  A video was shot of the announcement, but I haven't seen it posted yet.  I'll link to it when it goes live.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Playing with Play-by-Post Mechanics

Oddysey and I were chatting last night about play-by-post gaming. Her recent adventures in learning to code has her intrigued by the idea of creating GM tools and that got me contemplating the potentials for PbP gaming.

The negatives of PbP gaming are fairly obvious, and largely revolve around time: it’s incredibly slow, and you often end up waiting on people to respond (sometimes people who won’t ever respond again, curse them). So, if you were crafting mechanics optimized for PbP, you’d want something that took this into account and minimized it as much as possible. This leads us to an intriguing conundrum.

To play a game is to make choices. And yet, it’s the points of decision, where you have to wait for someone’s response, that create all the delays and unpleasantness. Obviously you don’t want to remove all choice; do that and you don’t have a game anymore. And even removing some choice can be considered a bad thing.

After talking all around Robin Hood’s barn last night, Oddysey summed things up very succinctly: not all choice is created equal. What we really want is meaningful choice.

Lots of choices in gaming are less than meaningful, or are so basic that they’re not really any choice at all. So, obviously, any time we need to stop to ask what the players want to do, we want to make sure they’re making a meaningful choice.

 Oddysey then suggested that a stakes mechanic (something akin, I assume she was thinking, to Dogs in the Vineyard) might be a good way to achieve that. I’m thinking a handful of parallel stakes mechanics. Think M:tG, where you have a handful of resource pools (maybe blue mana and black mana) and then you have to decide which you want to deplete based on a whole range of potential outcomes. And give each pool a few different ways it can be used.

The thing I like about this most is that it can be used to optimize one of PbP’s strong points: complicated mechanics. Since you literally have hours (if not days) between moves, there’s no need to keep the mechanics simple and quick. Want a combat system that modifies damage based on the attacker’s weapon and stance, and the defender’s armour, astrological sign, and what they had for breakfast? PbP can do it!

Granted, you need to keep it at least somewhat reasonable, to the point where the players can make logical and reasonably accurate guesstimates about success when they’re setting their stakes. But the possibilities are still quite broad there.

 I’m curious if anyone’s seen any good PbP theory posts or commentary out there. Please point the way!

Art by Hippolyte Bellange.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review: Tales of the Emerald Serpent

Scott Taylor openly acknowledges that, yes, Tales of the Emerald Serpent is a collection of short stories absolutely inspired by Robert Asprin’s Thieves World project. Like Asprin’s collections, the stories are sword-and-sorcery centered around a town of cut-throats, tricksters, callous oligarchs and the poor innocents trapped into living next door to them. Unlike the earlier Thieves World collections, this one is a lot tighter, with the stories referencing each other and, in some cases, woven together. Much of it feels like a fantasy version of 24, only with each story being that day from a different character’s perspective.

Also, unlike Thieves World’s Sanctuary, Tales of the Emerald Serpent’s city of Taux is much more of a character in and of itself. The ancient city, clearly inspired by Aztec and Mayan culture, is populated by ghosts, nearly every brick and stone inhabited by the specters of its previous citizens who were suddenly slain in a mysterious magical disaster. Many of the stories center around these ghosts or are influenced by the ever-present threat that the citizens of Taux are both blase about and constantly aware of.

The book includes nine stories, many by well-known authors. They range from the straight-up caper-style story (reminiscent of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) Three Souls for Sale by Mike Tousignant to the family drama of Lynn Flewelling’s Namesake. Harry Connolly’s dark The One Thing You Can Never Trust is probably the most disturbing and Twilight Zone-ish of the stories. The artist Todd Lockwood gives us a rollicking and fun tale about a Corsair who meets an old flame and gets drawn into his schemes. Juliet E. McKenna’s Venture is a surprisingly sweet story threaded around the warp of racial tensions in a fantasy world.

Martha Wells’ Revnants feels exactly like the sort of story you’d expect from the author of City of Bones, mingling heroic fantasy with cultural archeology. It’s a good story, but the ending feels a touch abrupt, as does Rob Mancebo’s Footsteps of Blood, both leaving the door wide open for sequels or longer treatments.

And then there’s Scott Taylor’s Charlatan, which does a masterful job of weaving nearly all the stories together. Almost every other tale gets a passing nod in his story of a devious trickster challenged to a duel he cannot possibly win. It’s great fun, even if it’s a bit abrupt in the climax (though understandably so).

There’s not a bad story in the bunch and my favorite is Julie Czerneda’s Water Remembers, which gives us a glimpse at those who dwell among the wizards of the Star Tower as well as the ways in which the haunting of an entire city can lead to surprising transformations among what would otherwise be rather mundane trades crafts.

If you’re looking for some new good old sword-and-sorcery derring-do and skullduggery, Tales of the Emerald Serpent is absolutely worth your time and treasure. The characters are intriguing and unique, their adventures feel both fresh and familiar, and there’s a fun mix of danger, greed, heart, and humor. Here’s hoping we get additional glimpses into the days and nights of Taux soon.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Being an author is all about having readership.”

There's been a lot of talk over the years about how RPG businesses are based around selling books, which is a decidedly different business than selling either gaming content or gaming experiences. In addition to the potential disconnect between what the companies are selling and what the players want to buy, there is also the current chaos that is the book publishing industry, madly in flux right now. Laura and Tracy Hickman (yes, those Hickmans) think they've figured out what works now, and what works is basically turning the old publishing model literally upside-down:
“It’s no longer about being published … it’s about being read,” Tracy told us. “It’s all about the audience today; acquiring direct contact with the reader, maintaining and growing that relationship. Anyone can get ‘published’ today. Being an author is all about having readership.”
The new model, disturbingly enough, appears to be based around loss-leaders, rather like what you see in the insurance business. Or, a perhaps better metaphor for gaming and fiction, the illicit narcotics business: "The first hit is free." This is great for readers and fans; we get a bit of fun free stuff, and then can decide which content is good enough to support with actual purchases after we've seen some of the content.

Interestingly, this is clearly the model WotC is following. With their huge, open playtest, they're not just getting feedback on the rules, but are also getting broad dissemination of the game. Lots of folks will see it, read it, and play it, and create buzz so that when the books finally appear on shelves, people will buy them instead of simply playing the free copies of the playtest docs that will almost certainly still be floating about the intrawebs. Also interestingly, I think this can work very well for the Kickstarter model as well. You give away the basic content, then based on reaction to that you can launch a Kickstarter to cash in on the interest and get the ball rolling for fancier, dead-tree books, boxed sets, whatever, with more bells and whistles like intro adventures and the like.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: Beneath the Sky

Right up front, yes, Dan Thompson is a friend of mine.  So it’s a relief to be able to recommend Beneath the Sky to others.

Normally this isn’t the sort of thing I read.  I prefer my sci-fi a bit more swashbucklery, and while Beneath the Sky isn’t exactly hard sci-fi, its focus on both the tragedies and rewards of a first-contact situation very much have the feel of a more cerebral read.  Which isn’t to say the book is utterly devoid of derring-do (we even get an attack by space pirates), but only that the perils and opportunities of the first-contact situation remain the principal focus.

Just over a millenium ago, a religious sect called the Masonites set out to found a colony in a distant solar system.  Travelling aboard a generational colony ship (that is, one in which the colonists live for multiple generations as they travel to their destination), they expect to reach their New Providence in another 600 years.  

Of course, things back on Earth haven’t exactly sat still in the meantime.  Humanity has mastered FTL travel and settled many worlds, including the one chosen by the Masonites to be their New Providence.  The colonists’ co-religionists were principal actors in dramatic historical events.  And neither the greater mass of humanity nor the Masonite colonists are aware of what’s been happening with the others during most of that time.  

The stage is set, then, for a series of dramatic events and accidents when a survey ship makes contact with the Masonite colonists.  What follows is both tragic and happy, and Thompson does a masterful job of weaving the two emotional reactions together, creating a surprising tapestry that is, in the end, both sad and satisfying.  He’s also an extremely efficient writer, almost too much so; while all the important threads are neatly finished, I wouldn’t have minded lingering a bit on a few of them at the end.  

If you enjoy Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta books, or Weber’s Honor Harrington universe (but wish they included a more “blue collar” point of view) you’ll like Beneath the Sky.  For myself, I certainly won’t wait so long before reading Dan’s next book.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Terraformed Mars

From The Atlantic (yeah, I know) a not-too-terribly scientific look at what a terraformed Mars might look like.  Great pics:

The article ends by noting, "Looks like home, maybe a bit, just with a foreign geography."  Except it doesn't, really.  A terraformed Mars is going to have one giant super-continent.  Even if you assume any bit of land that touches another bit of land constitute one continent (making North and South America a single continent, as well as Eurasia and Africa) Earth still has four distinct land masses.  It also appears that a watery Mars is closer to a 50/50 split of surface area being water or land, as opposed to Earth's 70/30 split. 

I can't imagine that doesn't result in some really odd weather.  I do think the artist got it right that one half of that continent is really green (perhaps even waterlogged, like the Amazon) and the other half is pretty dry and barren; a watery Mars isn't necessarily going to be a green Mars.  I could also see a wet Mars experiencing something like an epic version of our monsoon pattern weather

Friday, February 01, 2013

Hexographer Hex-a-fies Anything!

Those of you looking to convert the more modern, suitable-for-framing style artsy world maps into traditional, suitable-for-hex-crawlin' maps might want to give this new feature in Hexographer a look:
Hexographer just got a new feature: Converting a map (or really any PNG image) into a hex map! This is designed to make it a little easier to create a hex map based on another map you’ve created or scanned.
And now I'm intrigued by the possibilities of hex-a-fying things that were not intended to be maps originally.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Dead Iron Review: Werewolves of the Old (and Grim and Tight-lipped) West

Dead Iron was recommended to me by a friend who'd very much enjoyed this series and others by Devon Monk.  The book is workmanlike and entertaining, but hardly enthralling.

Our hero, Cedar Hunt, has been cursed with lycanthropy.  He's interesting enough, though his tortured mien slips into angsty every now and then, and is only saved from whiny by his tight-lipped, Old West tough-guy personae.  Mae Lindson bears the double-scarlet letters of being both a witch and the gringa half of a racially mixed marriage.  She's widowed pretty early on in the book (before the end of chapter 2), and spends most of the book wrapped in raging grief and the thirst for vengeance.  Her husband is slightly more approachable as a character in spite of being dead, in large part because he refuses to admit that "until death do us part" means your marriage ends when your heart stops beating.  Rose Small is an orphaned child with a mysterious past even she doesn't suspect, and which is little explored in this book.  Still, her determined optimism, open-mindedness, and innocence makes her the most empathetic and interesting or our main characters.  They are aided by a trio of subterranean "Welsh" miners and steam-punk tinkerers called the Madder brothers, who provide logistical support, firepower, and much-needed comic relief, though they themselves fall prey to the tight-and-stiff-lipped Old West tough-guy thing themselves. 

They are opposed by the excessively ostentatious Shard LeFel, royal exile of a magical world-next-door.  Under the guise of a railroad tycoon, LeFel has been working to build an enchanted door that will allow him to return home.  He just needs to murder three specific people in order to open that door. 

(As an interesting aside, LeFel is written more like a tragic hero than a villain, facing and overcoming obstacles and setbacks at every turn.  Except for his eagerness to murder and manipulate, he'd be easy to mistake for a hero whose goals just happen to oppose those of our main characters.) 

The action takes place in the small town of Hallelujah, populated by the most backwards, suspicious, small-minded sheeple-hicks you're likely to ever encounter this side of Hester Prynne's Boston.  I'm not shocking or spoiling anything for you when I mention that LeFel whips up the townsfolk into a torch-waving mob that marches on Mae Lindson's home, am I?  Didn't think so.

LeFel's minions are largely made up of the Strange, and they darn near make up for any shortcomings in the story.  Malevolent spirits driven by disturbing appetites, they seek easy entry into the American continent, and the dead iron rails of LeFel's transcontinental railroad are just the sort of gateway that they need.  In the meantime, they require the sorcerous-steampunk amalgamation bodies LeFel can provide in order to have any serious presence in the human world, and they use these bodies to further LeFel's interests, though not always eagerly. 

I haven't decided if I'm going to pick up the second book in this series.  I just don't feel the burning need to know what happens next, as I do with Kim Harrison's books, nor do I find the world quite as intriguing as I do Sarah Hoyt's current foray into multi-world steampunk-and-sorcery (though I'll readily admit Monk's work is far more steampunky, with it's steam-powered mecha and multi-utility brass-and-crystal shooting goggles.  Yes, Virginia, in Monk's work, the goggles, they do do something!).  That all said, the setting and the Strange are intriguing, and I'm curious to see what sort of trouble Rose finds for herself, so I imagine I'll pick up book two eventually.