The Idealizer - My Two GM Numenera Adventure

Let's pretend there exists a machine that can make you a better person. Just imagine, all of your shortcomings and flaws could be erased. All you have to do is push a button and you'll become an ideal version of yourself. Would you push that button?

This is the question that turned into a Numenera adventure I ran with my friend and fellow GM, Troy Pichelman.

Developing the adventure

I played in a Call of Cthulhu game at Gen Con 2015 that was run by two game masters from the MU Skulls. It was a fantastic game in which the two groups started out at separate tables, got mixed together, broken apart, and then placed at odds with one another. Time and reality became questionable and fractured, and eventually looped back upon itself. It was the most memorable gaming experience I had at Gen Con, and I really wanted to replicate the excitement I had for my gaming friends.

The two GM game rattled around in my head for a few weeks, but I wasn't coming up with any good ideas. I nailed down a few things without coming up with any good story ideas. First of all, the system and setting should make it easy for players to buy into the idea of weird things happening that would cause their characters to fall through time and reality. Numenera is a perfect fit for this kind of thing. Numenera explicitly tells players to expect weird and inexplicable things to happen. Second was finding another GM I'd be able to run the game with. Troy was an obvious pick since the two of us share a lot of opinions about how to run games, and we had half an hour every Saturday to talk things over while our daughters ice skated. Finally, I knew I could get enough players together at either of our gaming weekends, which were coming up in just a few short weeks.

Inspiration for the adventure finally struck a few weeks before Troy's big board gaming weekend. I was feeling really terrible about a lot of stuff and got an idea stuck in my head. When everything feels completely miserable and there's no clear path back to normalcy, it would be nice to just have a switch you can flip to make everything better. This thought evolved over the course of about a week, and I knew I had my double GM Numenera adventure.

Troy and I worked through the details of the adventure over the next few weeks. It was rather informal, and outside of the short discussions we had during our daughters' skating lessons I would jot down ideas for it from time to time. We had a bunch of little ideas and a few big things put together, but neither of us really likes to plan out too much. 

The start of the Numenera adventure that I put together was that the player characters found an ancient facility from a previous world and activated it. This facility, which I refer to as The Idealizer, was able to search through countless parallel dimensions, find the best version of you, then replace your dimension's version of you with the better dimension's version. The facility has fallen into disrepair over the countless millennia, so it is no longer very efficient with the whole replacement process. 

The adventure then follows two groups, the ideal group and the flawed group, as they make their way through the facility. One group of players would play with the flawed characters, while the other group had the better versions of those characters. For example, the flawed group had Veland the Dishonorable Jack who Needs No Weapon, while the ideal group had Veland the Honorable Jack who Needs No Weapon. The Types and Descriptors of the Cypher System allowed us to make characters that seemed very similar, but were very distinct. The groups will get mixed together, certain members will get swapped out, and they will ultimately get to the final defense the facility has to prevent potential paradoxes from escaping into the world.

Running the game

We've run the adventure twice and it's been a lot of fun. The first time around was a bit rough, but we revised a few things and the second run was much better. Now that all of the local players I'd be running this for have gotten through it, I'm not terribly concerned about spoiling it for some of them anymore. I've learned a lot from the two sessions, and will be keeping a lot of this in mind the next time I start putting together a paired GM session.

The most important thing is flexibility from both GMs. You need to be able to adjust things on the fly, either by extending your time, or cutting something short. We had a few moments that we wanted to hit at different times during the session. About thirty minutes in, we would swap a character between the two groups. Once we got about five to ten minutes from that point we'd check in with a quick text message. If one of us needed more time, then the other would have to start filling in the current scene.

Another thing that I have taken away from the games is that players need more information. No matter how much information I give them, they can always use more. This was something I'd changed after the first time we ran it, and Troy stepped in at the end to provide the groups with just the right amount of extra information to get them to where we wanted them by the end of the game. My pacing of getting the information to the players was much improved, and they were curious the whole way through, but there was just a bit more at the end they needed. As a GM I think that secrets are intriguing, but I forget in the moment that divulging those secrets is what makes them exciting and memorable.

The biggest change we made after the first time we ran the game was to concretely define what the characters looked like. Since we had two groups of players playing essentially the same characters it lead to a lot of questions about how they looked when they started getting mixed together. I hadn't wanted to strictly define physical appearance, since some players really like making up those details, but for the case of this game that open endedness lead to more confusion than we wanted. When Bird Staco got switched in the second session and the players came to the tables with their name tents that had the same character portraits the other players were able to buy the change more easily. Rather than panicking when once character who had been a man turned into a woman, the players were able to focus on the odd and subtle differences that had occurred to Bird Staco after they entered the tunnels of the facility.

Memorable Moments

There were a lot of great moments that arose from the two sessions of The Idealizer.

At one point during the first session, after the groups had been mixed up a bit, my group got into a fight with some creatures. Darcy Ross, a veteran player, was helping some of the newer players out by going over some of the mechanics. She told one of the players, who had been swapped into the group, to use a specific power which she had seen on the other version of the character's sheet. However, since the character had a different descriptor he didn't have the power she'd advised him to use. The look on her face when she realized that the pairs of characters were slightly different was memorable.

In the second session, we swapped Bird Staco as my group was making their way into the maintenance tunnels of the facility. After the switch the group spent the next ten minutes or so freaking out about how Bird had slightly different equipment, while Bird freaked out that her friend Bowe was still alive. When we had odd numbers one group would have a character the other didn't, and that character was long dead for the other group. I was able to sit back and just watch the players do all of the work.

Near the end of the second session one of the players gave me the greatest look. It communicated so much anger and shock because she realized what we were asking the groups to do. I knew at that point the decision we were asking them to make was understood, and it was difficult.

I knew we got the revisions correct, because after the last session the players were all talking about what had happened very excitedly. They were comparing stories, looking for the differences between the two adventures, talking about all of the cool stuff they had found.

I'm sure that Troy and I will be coming up with ideas for another dual GM game for our gaming weekends. For now, I'll be trying to clean up the adventure and actually do something with it. I'd rather not let it rot on a hard drive somewhere.