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Friday 6 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Numenera: Ashes of the Sea

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. One of the regular pieces of support for an existing roleplaying game in 2018 is Ashes of the Sea, a scenario and quick-start use with Monte Cook Games’ highly regarded and award-winning Numenera roleplaying game.

Numenera describes a world a billion years into the future in the Ninth Age, drastically changed by huge advances in science, but whilst the evidence of those changes is all around, the understanding of the science has long been lost. This does not mean that it cannot be regained and Numenera is all about discovering the great secrets of the past and using them to make a better world. Examples of this technology include Cyphers, one-use devices that the player characters can freely find and use for strange magical-like effects and there are lots of Cyphers to find and use, so the player characters are encouraged to use what they find—there will always be more. In essence, Numenera re-invented Dungeons & Dragons-style play, but in a Science Fantasy setting and combined it with accessible, player facing mechanics that allowed the GM to focus on storytelling. With the inclusion of some fantastic artwork—and every release for Numenera is superbly illustrated in full colour—that beautifully portrays the far future world of Numenera, you have an RPG setting with both scope and grandeur.

Ashes of the Sea opens with the player characters exploring a prior-world ruin in search of numenera. It is clear that the ruins have been picked over by previous explorers, but when they unseal and explore a previously unexplored room, they accidentally activate a machine which sends them far away. They awaken to find themselves in a ruined building on the side of a mountain far above a green valley. The room has similar machinery, but it needs to be repaired before there is any hope that the explorers can transport themselves back to where they were. With no other obvious clues as to where they are or the means to make such repairs, perhaps answers and means lie in the valley below. Here the explorers discover the village of Bardak, its insular if friendly inhabitants, and the legends of how the village came to be. They also learn of the great six-armed icon to the north, which villagers describe as sitting above an entrance to the underworld and speak of as their protector.

With nothing in the way of technology—or cyphers—available in Bardak, the nearest place of interest for the explorers will be the Icon. Getting to the Icon will be relatively easy, whereas persuading the villagers, and especially the village Elders, to let them go to the Icon is another matter. This will require a fair degree of persuasion, setting up some side quests that if completed, may influence any negotiations in the adventurers’ favour. Of course, the explorers could just off without seeking permission, but that will probably make the trip just a little more difficult. Once there, it is matter of finding the right equipment, overcoming dangers, and thence home for tea. Or at least home to wherever they left from…

Ultimately, the ‘Ashes of the Sea’ adventure is a sidetrek, a diversion from whatever the player characters were doing in the first place. It does not involve anything in the way of villains or enemies and the main problems are really environmental and technological, although the player characters will need to use their powers of persuasion too. As an introductory adventure, it showcases the uses to which technology can be—and been in the past—put to make the world a better place, but it also highlights the dangers of meddling just a little too much. As a sidetrek adventure for an ongoing campaign, it does whilst also providing the explorers the chance to stock up with more cyphers and other numenera.

Throughout the adventure there are notes for Game Master to help her make GM Intrusions—a way of making life more awkward for the player characters, but also a way to reward them with Experience Points—and to adjust the difficulty as necessary. These are primarily aimed at ongoing campaigns, not being as suitable if ‘Ashes of the Sea’ is being used as an introductory adventure or as a one-shot.

The second half of Ashes of the Sea presents an explanation of the rules to Numenera. It is a good explanation and it will be familiar to anyone who has The Numenera Starter Set. In fact the material from The Numenera Starter Set is more than enough to play though this scenario. Physically, Ashes of the Sea is as well presented as you would expect from a book from Monte Cook Games. The layout is clean, the writing clear, and the artwork, although recycled from other products, is excellent.

If The Spire of the Hunting Sound for Free RPG Day 2017 was not an easy scenario to use, focusing a little too much on puzzles, then ‘Ashes of the Sea’ strikes a more balanced note. Less puzzles and more of a focus on exploration and technology with some good social and roleplaying elements along the way. Overall Ashes of the Sea is a solid introduction to the Ninth World of Numenera, but one that really works well as a sidetrek adventure.

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