The Helpful Worm: A Numenera One-Shot

Here's a Numenera module I wrote. If I'm reading correctly, it's not okay to put this on the internet as a Google Doc (as I originally had it), but it is permitted to put it up on a sites page. I don't really understand why the cases are different, but rules are rules I suppose.

I’ve run this module twice and both times it’s lasted about three hours.


The Xu were a species of highly intelligent sandworms from a long-vanished civilization.  Having mastered the secrets of nanoassembly, their culture assigned little intrinsic value to goods; instead, their economy was based on reputation.  In a culture where the only wealth is upvotes, the Helpful Worm was one of the more successful spammers.  Now, a careless explorer has activated one of the Worm’s reputation-farming modules.  The party needs to stop it before it converts the region to desert.


A dominant theme of Numenera is the discovery and mastery of new technology.  This module highlights that theme.  The heart of the story is a “sandbox” (heh) exploration phase in which the party tries to salvage as much technology as possible from the Helpful Worm’s spam outpost.


The story begins in Map Tower, in the village of Map, as the party speaks to Onald Seven, an enthusiastic Aeon Priest. Though young, Onald already bears the marks of his craft: his left arm is an oversized grayish bear arm, and a patch on his forehead has turned to silvery crystal.  “New adventurers!” he says.  “How delightful!  You will do wonderfully -- and I have just the job for you!”

Here is some background, in case it comes up.

About the Map: a hexagonal crystal table, about five feet wide, floats above the top floor of the wooden tower.  The table displays a map of the region surrounding the tower.  Onald (or any nano) can zoom the map in or out, but cannot change its center point.  Strange purple glyphs dance across the Map, sometimes highlighting certain points or flashing indecipherable warning messages.  No known force can move the Map from its spot; settlers found it here long ago, and built a tower up to reach it.  Onald says he thinks the Map was once part of a military base of some sort.

About Onald’s old arm: twenty years ago, in time of great peril, a nano used the Map to commune with the great god Ion, who fired his Cannon from the sky at an invading army.  Onald tried to do the same three months ago, but it disintegrated his left arm, and blared an angry message nonstop for twenty-three hours afterward.

About Onald’s new arm: “Sixth Age corrosion-bears!  They came rampaging down from the north three months ago, and the whole town mobilized to fight them off!  We managed to kill them without too much tissue damage, and we’re keeping them on ice in the basement!  Sixth Age biotech is wonderful stuff, it grafts onto nearly any tissue perfectly!  All the neural matter is in the torso, so as long as you keep to the appendages they won’t fight you for control at all!”

About Onald’s forehead: “Oh, there’s a ruin of some sort, southeast of here” -- he waves, deliberately ambiguously, at a part of the Map.  “There was liquid coming out of a pipe into a crystal basin, and I tried looking up into the pipe, and, er --”  Onald looks a bit sheepish.  “Turns out it transmutes things to diamond.  Sort of diamond.  Quite strong, not very malleable.  Lasts about a month, we think.  Hurts quite a bit.”

Onald points to the Map.  “See this mountain?  See the cliff about halfway down, see the flat sand under the cliff, see the domes on the sand?  The cliff wasn’t there last week.  Last week it was just a mountain.”

“And -- do you realize what this means?  There’s something down there that can level mountains!  I want that!  Er, but I’d also like it not to actually level all our mountains.  So, I have two goals for you.  Shut that thing down, and bring me back all its secrets.  I’ll reward you well.”

The promised reward: “Sixth Age corrosion-bear parts!”  Onald gestures at his giant grey bearish arm.  “We’ve still got three-and-a-half bears left!  We’ve been using them as emergency limb transplants, but I can offer you a limb each!  Have you ever wished you had an extra arm or leg?”

If anyone seems unenthusiastic, Onald also has a stash of diamond swords.  “Yeah, merchants seem to like these.  They should stay diamond for about a month.  You’d really rather have a sword than a bear arm?”

Onald does not trade in “shims”.  Shims, he explains, are sliced-up bits of ancient technology -- adventurers discover wonders beyond their comprehension, but rather than try to learn from them, they slice the wonders up and use them as currency.  As a priest of technology, Onald finds the whole thing rather blasphemous; he prefers to barter with whatever technology he’s discovered most recently.


Onald recommends travel by water since a river goes pretty near the mountain; he supplies a raft.  If the party goes for that, they get attacked by two L3 mesomemes, wearing a mix of human, merfolk, and broken-hound heads.  The mesomemes initially look like a group of swimmers (except why are humans and merfolk and broken-hounds swimming together?).  The heads call out to the party, but their messages are inane: “Hello. Hello. Nice weather! Hello. Hi! Good morning! Hello.” It’s only when the heads reach the party’s raft that the giant crab-monsters rear up and the heads are revealed as decoys.

If the party goes by land, the hills are full of broken hounds; the party could fight all the hounds but it’s better to make skill checks to avoid them.

When the party approaches the mountain, they find it covered in sand. New sand falls regularly out of the plateau up above. Quite a lot of sand has fallen into the river; the river’s course has changed substantially recently, so the final approach to the mountain is not navigable by raft.


The Helpful Worm’s nanofactory has manufactured small worm-shaped bots to bring nearby sandworms to the outpost.  In the absence of sandworms, the bots are targeting other creatures.  When a bot gets near the party, it shouts its message telepathically.  The bot projects an image of the Helpful Worm, an eight-foot-long sandworm with a gleaming blue-and-turquoise underbelly.  It sends one of the following messages.  Generally, the party should be exposed to these messages in this order:

  • “The Helpful Worm wants to help you recapture that infrared glow of youth and vitality.  Its servitors can inject your carapace with tiny heat emitters which you can activate when the time is right!”

  • “The Helpful Worm has a selection of the healthiest nutrient mosses and fungi!  This secret mixture is guaranteed to bring your psychic senses in alignment with the Earth’s magnetic field!”

  • “The Helpful Worm wants to tell you about a way to get the ridges out of your carapace.  it's a recently discovered trick using Fifteenth Age wisdom, using all-natural minerals!”

  • “The Helpful Worm can treat your carapace with a sand-repellent oil, letting you move faster through the sand.  Your friends will never know it’s not your natural telekinesis!”

  • Optionally, feel free to add some messages about sandworm-mating-bots or telepathic happiness beams.  The Helpful Worm is absolutely sleazy enough to offer these things, but the topics may make some players feel uncomfortable in-real-life, so they aren’t appropriate for all groups.

  • “Are you tired of being perceived as less trustworthy and responsible than your peers? The Helpful Worm knows an easy five-step process for improving your reputation through the datasphere!”

After sending any of those messages, the adworm sends: “Come to the Helpful Salon and relax as the Helpful Worm’s agents take care of you!”  The message comes with a sense of where the character can find the offering that was just advertised.

This psionic message not compatible with human minds, and the force of the projection makes it an L4 Intellect attack which inflicts four intellect damage on anyone within 60 feet.  I usually follow this up with a GM Intrusion, telling one of the characters they really do feel compelled to get whatever useless treatment was advertised.  If they accept the intrusion, I give them the XP now, but tell them their character will go insane if they leave the area without dealing with their compulsion.

The adworms are only L2 for defense and hit points due to their small size and slow movement.  If the party gets hit by the blast but for some reason doesn’t kill the adworm, it doesn’t attack again; it just wanders off looking for someone else to advertise to.

Dissecting an adworm reveals that it’s built of fused bits of rock (in much the same way that fiberboard is built of fused bits of wood).  The adworm’s telepathic attack comes from a pair of antennae which are connected to a silvery sphere in the center of the thing.  This can be salvaged and used as a cypher: it is a psionic emitter which sends a single telepathic command to an area.  Wormbots will obey this message until it is overridden by their creator.

The Helpful Outpost.

The outpost is a collection of forty-foot-wide domes, built from fused rock, sitting on the sand.  Building the outpost are the six-foot-long constructor wormbots.  These wormbots’ intended function is to fuse sand into domes and bots, but their secondary function is to “smooth out” any unwanted rocks by vibrating them into fine sand.  The entire mountain is considered to be “unwanted rock”, so the constructors are trying to convert the whole mountain into sand.

Optional development (or GM intrusion): The constructor wormbots, chewing at the base of the cliff, don’t understand that their actions could lead to rockfalls.  The wormbots trigger an avalanche.

The sand is thirty feet deep in the center. It is mostly just sand (except see “shutting down the outpost”, below).

Constructor wormbots are L3 with 2 armor.  If attacked, they assume the attacker is a wild animal of some sort and flee under the sand.

A group of broken hounds are standing next to one of the domes, periodically trying (and failing) to break in through the rock. These creatures have been affected by an adworm and are trying to “recapture that infrared glow of youth and vitality” by getting their “carapaces” treated with heat emitter nanoparticles. They are very stupid and have not realized they could dig under the dome. They do not attack the party unless the party specifically draws their attention.

Optional development (or GM intrusion): if the party seems to be slowing down, an adworm shows up and advertises another of the Helpful Worm’s services.


The sandworms managed their relative reputation through a datasphere service whose name translates as TrustX.  This service has been disused for thousands of years but is still basically operational.  The service is happy to establish reputation accounts for new individuals such as the player characters, but the service is only used by sandworm technology, so it’s unlikely that these accounts will ever be relevant in the future.  Accounts start out with enough “trust” in them that each player character can “purchase” several services from the Helpful Worm.

The Helpful Domes.

Within each dome is two eight-foot-long servitor wormbots, made of the same fused rock, willing to perform one of the functions advertised by the adworms above.

On one side of each dome is a datasphere uplink which has one function: to allow the user to announce, to a long-disused service in the datasphere known as TrustX, that the Helpful Worm is “extremely trustworthy and reliable”.  Sticking one’s finger in the uplink is sufficient to make the connection, though it does deal one point of damage as the uplink samples the user’s DNA via their blood.  Intellect checks may be required to navigate the system.  The servitors insist that any user “pay” using the uplink before receiving any service.

Characters are likely to attack the servitors, to try to extract the valuable technology within.  Each servitor contains a weak telepathy node, plus cyphers appropriate to their function:

  • heat emitters: This vial contains tiny nanites which sink into the user’s skin and last for one week.  The next time the user gets near a fertile sandworm, the nanites activate, warming up the user’s skin to make them look like a more attractive mate.  (We can assume this will never happen because sandworms are extinct.)  May also activate to prevent hypothermia.

  • fungus spray: This canister sprays an oil which produces extremely rapid fungus growth.

  • carapace deridger: This rod uses a sonic effect to smooth out any rock-like surface it is pressed against.  It’s very painful when used on human flesh. If anyone had a compulsion to receive this treatment, they take one damage when the treatment starts (ignore armor) and then the compulsion goes away. (The two servitor bots continue trying to deridge the poor character's carapace; this is an L3 attack dealing four damage, and as a GM intrusion it may destroy armor.)

  • sand-repellent oil: Allows the user to “swim” through sand, and also to breathe in it since the sand is repelled from their head.

  • nanoassembly module seed: If exposed to the proper minerals and a suitable power source, this grows into a nanoassembly module. The module will be similar to the one that created this area, but will credit 75% of reputation gains to the user (and 25% to the helpful worm as an “affiliate”). It uses predetermined advertising behavior and does not accept orders even from its “owner”.

Each servitor may contain 2-4 cyphers.  Servitors are L3 with 2 armor.  If attacked, the servitors assume the attacker is a sandworm, and send telepathic messages reminding the attacker that damaging Helpful Worm property will result in a loss of reputation.  (This is an L2 area attack dealing 2 Intellect damage.)  The servitors do not think to dive under the sand when threatened (because that wouldn’t work against a sandworm attacker).

Outpost Defenses.

If the constructor bots or the servitor bots are attacked, the base may deploy defenses.  Base defenders are two-foot-diameter stone spheres, frequently covered in bloodstains.  These spheres levitate through the air or burrow through sand at high speed; they deal damage by ramming things.  These are L3 opponents with 4 armor, dealing 4 damage on a hit.

The outpost does not seem to realize that its telepathic messages are damaging to humans.  It may send a general message that the base is under attack and customers should take cover (if so, this is an L3 area attack dealing 3 intellect damage), but it doesn’t attempt to damage attackers telepathically.

If the defender bot(s) are destroyed, the outpost can make more, but slowly.

The sandworm bots usually do not fight, even after they are attacked. If they believe the attacker might be a customer, their programming is to capture video evidence of the attack so that the Helpful Worm can sue that attacker for a massive amount of reputation. Fighting back would compromise the lawsuit (or, worse, lead to a counter-lawsuit). If they are certain the attacker is not a customer, their programming is to burrow under the sand and let the defender bots handle the fight. In a last-ditch emergency effort, the nanoassembler might marshal the sandworm bots to defend against an attack on the core, but even then the sandworm bots are pretty slow-moving.

Shutting Down The Outpost.

The outpost is controlled by a nanoassembly machine which was activated last week by a careless explorer.  The machine is surrounded by a six-foot-wide stone sphere.  Antennae on the outside of the sphere allow the machine to psionically control its minions.

The sphere is under the sand.  The party might reach it using that sand-repellent oil, or they might have a cypher, or they might have some other clever transportation method -- perhaps they’ve hollowed out one or more wormbots, or persuaded them to move the sphere to the surface?

When the party reaches the sphere, they will need to smash the exterior (or find some other way to enter).  Inside is the machine itself (a two-foot cube with wires and circuits) and the corpse of the explorer who activated it.  Touching the machine produces a powerful electric shock (L6 attack, 8 damage, ignoring armor).

When the party first enters the sphere, the machine sends a message: “VALUED CUSTOMER: THIS CONTROL MODULE CONTAINS NO USER SERVICEABLE PARTS.  PLEASE STEP OUT OF THE CONTROL MODULE.”  If the party remains in the sphere, the machine sends a second message: “VALUED CUSTOMER: PLEASE REMEMBER THAT DAMAGING HELPFUL WORM PROPERTY WILL LEAD TO A SEVERE LOSS OF REPUTATION.”  The machine alternates between the two messages.  Each message is an L3 Intellect area attack dealing 3 Intellect damage.

The party may be able to disable the machine without destroying it.  For example they might throw rocks at it, triggering its electric shock defense, until it runs out of energy and shuts down.  Or they could slice off all the antennae (on the exterior of the sphere and on the machine itself), preventing it from controlling its bots.  A skilled nano could make an L6 roll to shut the machine down.  A jack or glaive might be able to slice individual wires (taking care not to damage the crystal circuits) until the machine deactivates.  The machine has a rudimentary intelligence, but is single-minded in its desire to improve the reputation of the Helpful Worm, and won’t cooperate with anything that doesn’t achieve that goal.

When the machine is shut down or destroyed, all the wormbots self-destruct: they scramble their own internal machinery to prevent anyone from reverse-engineering it.  Any cyphers the party has looted from dead wormbots are unaffected.


When the party returns to Onald, award experience as follows:

  • 3 experience for shutting down the machine and preventing the mountain from being converted to sand.

  • 1 experience for bringing the machine back; 3 bonus experience if the machine is mostly intact or if the party brings back a seed which can grow a new machine.

  • 4 experience if the party brings back a constructor-wormbot: this creature can dig tunnels and build domes for Onald, so it’s very valuable

  • 1 experience per new kind of cypher the party offers Onald: psionic command projector, carapace deridger, sand repellent, carapace-heating nanites, fungus oil, datasphere uplink.

Divide this experience among all party members; round up or down, however you prefer.

Onald happily rewards the party with bear parts or diamond swords as promised, and also offers spare cyphers to replace any they used.

The dead explorer might have a hook leading to the next adventure.

If you run this, send me an email saying how it went! (danb dot numenera at gmail)

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