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I ran a game of Numenera with an experienced group of roleplayers that went on for about six months. It went okay from the players' perspective - I had a strong handle on making things weird and memorable, and I regularly got a bewildered laugh out of players when I described a bizarre cypher - but I found it increasingly dissatisfying because my players never used cyphers and they were able to overwhelm anything I threw at them with the application of 5 levels of effort. I wrapped up the campaign, not entirely sure what had gone wrong. I wasn't an experienced GM, but things had fallen over in a way I simply couldn't diagnose.

I'd read somewhere that Numenera works better when players are pushed a little harder to be creative, so I thought I'd try it. I designed some encounters that anticipated the usual optimal solutions (enemies that attack intellect, so that the player who found a way to stack 4 levels of speed defence wouldn't be immune to everything; enemies that had physical immunities so they had to be attacked with something other than physical weapons), built a dungeon so I could practice my dungeon-making skills, and threaded together a story with characters to negotiate with so that players who weren't combat types would have moments to shine. I wanted players to walk a little out of their comfort zone, confident that when they tried something more creative I'd find a way to encourage them to stick it out. I tried not to push too hard - I didn't want to stomp all over what my players built their characters to do, but I didn't want that to always work, either.

It was a disaster. The first session where it was some basic combat and some traps went okay - I did have one player resent how I was doing traps (I used a consistent adjective for every trapped object to move trap finding away from rolls to what players are doing in the game, and so the later traps would deal straight damage to reflect the traps becoming more cunning and the expectation that characters would learn to spot the signs) but I managed to find some common ground there and ended with some memorable weirdness. Second session, my players wandered into one of my boss rooms, try some ineffective attacks against the boss (an abykos, so it moves between being insubstantial and solid with attack difficulty to suit) and decide to run. That's fine, at least they're not blindly attacking it, and I guess they'll come back later when they're more ready to work out how to kill it. Only two players are really using their cyphers, but that's two more than last time so I'll take it. Third session, players spent an hour wandering around aimlessly, not really trying anything, and another hour with some enemies I'd designed that were immune to physical damage from weapons but not immune to any other source where they kept hitting them with their weapons over and over again.

I stopped the game ten minutes early and asked them why they hadn't tried using any of their cyphers, or assessing the enemies, or trying some kind of creative solution. One player said that he had assumed, because one enemy did not respond to his phased attack, that all enemies would not respond to his phased attack. Another said that usually in combats that if an attack didn't hit it was because the roll was bad, so they'd usually just try again and hope for a better roll. Another said that the system was too open, so they never felt they had enough information to predict what would work - which were questions I was waiting for. I'd noticed players would try something that wouldn't work, I'd tell them how it hadn't worked, and then they never tried to work out why or what would work, they just assumed that I'd disabled their powers capriciously.

It's been so discouraging that I'm considering not bothering with GMing entirely. I appreciate I'm not the best GM, and that some of my weaknesses likely contributed to the bad experience (my on-the-fly description work is not particularly great) but I don't know what I've done to my players that they're not willing to try to ask questions or try new things in combat. I didn't think I was that bad a GM.

What can I do to encourage my players to be more creative?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like it would have been a fun game to me. I need to look into Numenera now. At any point did you let your players know that you were expecting more than the basics from them? I was in a game once where the DM largely ignored proper traps in dnd3.5 and made everything a player puzzle, so most of the session ended up being me working on the puzzle and everyone else goofing off. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Jun 2 '16 at 15:08
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I think that neither yourself nor your players, are playing Numenera. Warning signs such as "dungeon-making skills" and characters able to use 5 level of effort (wow!) makes me think that you are trying to play D&D with a different world and system. This will not work, as you clearly found out. This is an paradigm problem.

In any case, the true path to Power in the Cypher system is, well, the cyphers.

The whole point of Numenera is to use cyphers like they went out of fashion. After all, you gain many new ones all the time. Traditional hoarding will hold you back and make you less powerful. This needs to be clearly explained to the players: "Do not hoard, spend!"

So, do a silly one off encounter with different cyphers: each player plays their character but with a random set of cyphers. The aim is to defeat the obstacles in their path using those cyphers. The next iteration has new cyphers so forces the players to adapt. This should not take more than an hour per round. Do a few, and your players (and yourself) will get how it work. The aim here is not to defeat all the obstacles, it is to get used to spending cyphers. It should forces the players to think outside the box and come up with new and fun uses for their cyphers.

A good such encounter might be a physical fortress, a hostile guardian, some social interactions, and a combat against people using the same cyphers themselves in each iteration.

During game play, offer them many new and interesting cyphers. So, unless they use theirs, they cannot pick up the new ones. Sure, they can discard some to pick a new one but really, where is the fun in that? You are not playing a tactical board game (neither sarcasm nor insult implied) but a story game. Make sure you players know that their characters are not going to die because they spend that cypher last session.

If the players have a healing cypher (say it regenerates limbs), then clearly your next GM intervention cuts a character's hand. Said player can either take it, gleefully get a XP, and regrow a limb or be boring. Now, of course, another GM intervention that turn said arm into an obsidian black animated sculpture might work well -- think Hell Boy.

As a GM, you know what cyphers they have. Suggest to them to use them: "Alice, your character has a cypher that allows her to float. That might be a good way to get your bearings in this weird wood."

Finally, you need to talk to your players and convey the idea that they are responsible for building the world around them as much as yourself. Cyphers are one way to make it the commonly shared story more interesting.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer speaks the most to me; I'm certainly thinking too much in the D&D paradigm and I imagine Monte Cook and D20s are putting my players in the same mindset. Part of the discussion revolved around how they used the abilities on their sheet to solve problems, which I knew wasn't the Numenera mindset. I guess I still have to consider whether what I want out of games I run is what they want to play, but I'll try your suggestion of a cypher-only sequence of encounters. \$\endgroup\$ – Merus Jun 3 '16 at 3:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Too many askers treat the system they talk about as just another flavor of DnD. +1 For pointing it out in this case. \$\endgroup\$ – Sejanus Jun 3 '16 at 5:12
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I'm not familiar with Numenera specifically, but I think I have some helpful tips for introducing a new system and encouraging players to explore.

Provide clear, immediate problems to solve.

A player in a new system doesn't know how things work yet, and they know it. Things that feel obvious to you, or even things that you've explicitly explained, may not have sunk in yet. That's why at this stage, it's important to give a lot of signposting answering the question "So, what am I supposed to do now?" And the easiest way to do that, is by providing a problem that's clear, immediate, and has some obvious hooks the players can start trying to tug on.

Imagine your players as trying to learn a new toolbox; your job is to minimize the number of decisions that aren't "which tool should I try now, and how." When you don't understand the system yet, it is much much easier to deal with "Get out of the locked room" than it is with "Persuade the princess to bake you a cake." It's limited, it's straightforward, and you've got all of your resources laid out in front of you. Similarly, it's much easier to deal with "Go kill that creature" than it is with "Wander around and try to figure out which creatures you can actually survive a fight with."

Provide immediate directions to experiment with.

"You're in a room with no doors and you're naked and there's nothing in the room" is an immediate problem. But it doesn't present immediate options for action and activity; that will be frustrating, and won't encourage a player who isn't feeling creative yet.The player doesn't have anything to latch onto; he doesn't have anything to try.

Fill the room with cupboards and knick-knacks; put in a mirror reflecting a different room; leave half a key embedded into a cobblestone, and now your players have the options of searching the room, interacting with the mirror, digging the key out.

Whatever your initial situation is, give the players some clear things to interact with, to pursue, to explore. The problem will give them a goal to work towards; these directions will give them some things to do so they don't risk feeling stuck.

Lead by example.

You're sold on the potential for creativity, but your players haven't read the material you've read; they haven't heard and thought up the cool examples you have. So show them; demonstrate the potential. Bring in an NPC who has one awesome, creative use, of one particular cypher, that one of your players has.

Wave the NPC in front of them. He doesn't need to be super-smart; he doesn't need to be super-helpful if he's an ally, or super-nefarious if he's an antagonist. He just needs to demonstrate the very simple principle: Look! Here's one cool thing you can do with cyphers. Say, wouldn't you like to think up cool things to do with all your cyphers?

Once you've established that cyphers are cool, and you can get a lot of mileage out of putting them to creative use, the players will start thinking up how to do that.

An experienced player can show the way.

If you have the option, having a player who's more familiar with the system and its potential can be a huge help to the entire group. Even if he comes in just for a session or two as a guest, he can lead by example much more directly than you can. Having a player there who's playing "right" can help your regular players follow suit quite easily.

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