Most roleplaying games have some kind of “experience points” or “xp.” They might call it something else, but there’s often some way to measure character advancement, improvement, or just doing a good job. In Numenera, experience points (xp) are a tool for both the GM and the player, but used in very different ways.
For the GM, experience points are a narrative tool. The GM can introduce complications into the game that affects a specific player whenever it seems appropriate, but when he does so, he offers that player 1 xp. The player can “refuse” it, but then it costs the player 1 xp.
Here’s how that might work in play. Say the PCs find a hidden console with some buttons. They learn the right order to press the buttons, and a section of the floor disappears (this happened in the second playtest session I wrote about). As GM, I don’t have the players specifically tell me where they’re standing. Instead, I give one player an XP and say, “unfortunately, you are standing directly over this new hole in the floor.” Now, if he wanted, the player could refuse the XP and spend one of his own, and then he would say, “I leap aside to safety.” Or, he could just make the defensive roll that the GM calls for and let it play out.
As I currently have things set up, players who gain an XP in this way also get one to award to another player for whatever reason they wish (a good idea, a funny joke, or whatever seems appropriate). So far, the playtesters have really enjoyed this–it’s empowering and interactive. The point is, though, is that this is what the GM is supposed to do–make things more interesting by throwing in exciting and unexpected challenges. In Numenera, it’s simply hard-coded into the rules.
This is wonderfully empowering to the GM. Not in a, “ha ha, now I’ll trounce the PCs with my NPCs,” way, but in a, “I can control the narrative a little bit, steering it more toward the story I want to create rather than just relying on the dice,” sort of way. Consider that old stand-by, “the PCs get captured and now they must escape from the bad guys.” In heroic fiction, this is such a staple that it would almost seem strange if it didn’t happen. But in many roleplaying games, this is an almost impossible turn of events–the PCs usually have too many ways to get out of the bad guy’s clutches even before they’re captured. The dice have to be wildly against them. It virtually never happens.
But in Numenera, a GM can use this narrative tool to steer things. By that, I don’t mean “you are all captured, here’s your 1 xp.” I mean more subtly. Things going wrong. The bad guys planning well. Fortune not favoring the PCs. Some players might find it heavy handed, but the xp softens the blow. And remember, they have a way to refuse these GM narrative nudges. It’s not meant to be a railroad tool, but instead a bit of a rudder. Not an inescapable track, but a nudge here and there.
And of course, the GM doesn’t have to have a deliberate goal in mind. The complications he introduces might just make things more interesting. When the PC’s climbing that burning rope, and everyone knows it’s going to break at some point, the game now has a mechanism that ensures that it breaks at just the right time.
Lastly, this mechanic offers a way for the GM to determine how things happen in the game without leaving it all to randomness. Bad guys trying to smash down the door to the room the PCs are holed up in? He could roll a bunch of dice and compare the NPCs’ stats to the door’s stats, and so on, OR, he could wait until the most interesting time, have the NPCs smash down the door, and award an xp to the PC trying his best to bar the door. It’s a task resolution tool for the GM. Which is to say, the GM doesn’t base things on stats, but on narrative choice. (Frankly, a lot of great GMs that I have known over the years–even in the very early days of the hobby–have run their games this way anyway. I like designing games toward how people play already.)
Obviously, this kind of thing requires a light hand. Used too often or used in the same way too often (Dolmar dropped his sword again?) and it becomes forced or jarring. Which means, of course, that GMs need other tools for awarding experience points. And players need some reason–or reasons–to care about them. I’ll discuss some of those next time.