Review: Numenera

Numenera was this year’s holiday reading. I find that an RPG book lasts me longer than several novels in the airport or on the beach, and is therefore often a more cost-effective purchase.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

In a Nutshell: Rules-light science fantasy RPG set one billion years in the future. Point-buy character generation, hybrid skills-based/class-and-level advancement, innovative approach to experience points. 418 page PDF with separate poster map file.

CONTENTS

New World, New Game (7 pages): In which we learn of how and why the game came to be written, and read the obligatory – and to my mind, surprisingly good – short story which showcases the kind of characters and adventures the game is intended to support, namely those in which quasi-medieval characters explore the ruins of long-dead advanced civilisations. It’s the RPG equivalent of The Dying Earth or The Book of the New Sun, or maybe Ringworld explored by its natives rather than outsiders.

Buried in this section is the advice to use p. 15 to teach the game, and p. 84 as a quick reference in-game,  those being where the core concepts are explained.

Getting Started (8 pages): This section gives you a capsule overview of the setting and the rules, which is useful as it gives the context for later chapters.

Characters (64 pages): Although the game is science fantasy, the characters are the traditional fighter, magic-user and thief, known locally as the glaive, nano and jack, respectively. From what I’d read on the game website, I expected character generation to be fast and straightforward, but actually it’s quite complex and requires familiarity with the rules. The central conceit of describing a character in one sentence – “I am a (adjective) (noun) who (verbs)”; e.g. “I am a Learned Nano who Exists Partially Out Of Phase” – is a clever one, and effectively gives you a wide range of modular backgrounds and subclasses, but since there are a number of choices for each component, with varying mechanical effects both initially and as the PC develops, to choose wisely you need to understand all of them. Characters also choose the source of their powers, be it training by a secret master, pure grit, genetic modification or what have you; this is more about how advancement is described than about mechanical effects. Likewise, they choose or dice for a connection to some NPCs.

Speaking of advancement, you get experience points for finding things out and accepting complications offered by the GM; you spend them to improve skills, attributes and whatnot; and once you’ve spent enough on improvements, you advance to the next level (sorry, “tier”) which unlocks new powers. You can also spend xp to avoid a complication or reroll an unpleasant die roll. That doesn’t taste quite right to me, but I’d have to try it to be sure whether it’s a good idea or a bad.

Playing the Game (46 pages): The core mechanic is very simple; every task or threat has a rating from 1-10, and to succeed, hit the foe, or dodge incoming attacks, you must roll at least 3 times that rating on 1d20 – so when faced with a level 4 monster, you must roll 12+ to hit it, and when it attacks you, you must roll 12+ to avoid being hit – notice that the GM doesn’t roll for the monster, it always hits unless you dodge. There are various ways to add bonuses to your die roll, or reduce the target number – this felt clunky to me, since some things deduct from the target number and some add to the die roll.

The Setting (98 pages): It’s unusual to find an RPG where the biggest section is not that for character creation. I think the size of this section (which like all of the sections includes several chapters) shows that the focus in Numenera is on the Ninth World and its wonders, rather than how characters are created and played. This includes a partial gazetteer for the delightful full-colour map, write ups for a number of locations, organisations, famous people and so forth. That’s all you’re getting – no spoilers – but it’s really good, barking mad weirdness Jack Vance would’ve been proud of throughout.

Creatures and Characters (48 pages): Here we find about 50 stock monsters and NPCs, ready for use as opponents or allies. The GM is clearly intended to make up his own whacky encounters, these are just to get him started. Like the rest of the game, this section is light on stats and rules, and heavy on narrative description.

The Numenera (44 pages): This section is about the weird objects PCs will find and use in the game. They are divided into ciphers, which are basically one-shot “magic items”; like potions in a fantasy game; artefacts, which have multiple uses; and oddities, which have no game use beyond reinforcing the weirdness of the setting. If you imagine a D&D game where the monsters and traps are built of treasure, you’re about on the right wavelength; this is because bodies of the fallen can have their implants harvested and repurposed by the PCs, and traps they overcome can be disassembled and their components reused.

As with creatures, the GM is intended to make up an endless flow of strange devices for the PCs to find and use; the dozens of examples provided are just that, examples, but as there are so many, you could run a number of sessions before needing to make up more.

Running the Game (46 pages): In this section, Cook speaks directly to the GM, explaining why the rules are as they are and how to use them to tell engaging stories, with copious examples. This is basically a large volume of designer’s notes, as well as the obligatory advice to the GM chapter, and for that reason one of the more interesting parts of the book for me. What you learn from this is essentially that Cook intends the game to be about exploration, both of the setting and of the character’s motives, and not about levelling up or combat. This explains the simplicity of the rules; you don’t need rules for things that can be handled by discussion around the game table, and therefore much of Numenera doesn’t really need rules.

Adventures (34 pages): Numenera is a game that can be played in a number of modes, and I heartily approve of this section, which includes four separate adventures, each showcasing a different focus for play.

  • The Beale of Boregal brings the PCs together (and is thus a good initial scenario) to investigate strange happenings in a remote settlement.
  • Seedship demonstrates why it is a bad idea to build your village on top of a derelict alien artefact, and is in a way a classic dungeon crawl.
  • The Hidden Price begins with what I’m already thinking of as the classic Numenera adventure, exploring a ruin, but quickly segues into urban intrigue.
  • Three Sanctums is for more experienced characters, and introduces a cabal of conspirators and a source of great power, rooted in long-forgotten stellar engineering.

Back Matter (15 pages): Character creation walkthrough, list of recommended reading, list of Kickstarter backers, character sheet.

FORMAT

Numenera is written principally by Monte Cook, and like his earlier Ptolus setting, it resembles a glossy travel guide more than a traditional RPG book. Lots of interesting and relevant colour artwork, good but restrained use of colour throughout.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It would make more sense to me if expending effort gave a flat +3 to die rolls instead of reducing the difficulty level by one. I can see the point of it, since if you reduce the difficulty level low enough you don’t have to roll at all, but it feels clunky.

CONCLUSIONS

The technology-as-magic approach is almost as old as RPGs; examples include Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, and DGP’s abortive AI game to name but three. However, this is perhaps the best take on that genre I’ve seen to date. It’s a really good idea for a setting, and Cook and associates maintain a high level of creative weirdness throughout the book.

The rules system is focused on leaving the GM free to handle the story by eliminating unnecessary tasks and delegating most of the necessary ones to the players. The experience point mechanics are innovative and interesting. It’s especially intriguing that PCs only get xp for finding things out, helping each other, or accepting narrative complications. However, overall the game felt to me like something that was trying really, really hard not to be D&D, and I’m not sure to what extent it succeeds. Perhaps that is why so many standard RPG concepts have new terminology in Numenera.

If I had time enough and players, I would run this, but in present circumstances it is likely to be relegated to the reference shelf, and plundered for ideas, of which it is a veritable gold mine. It’s a bit close to the narrativist corner of the triangle for my group and I, though, and as the intent seems to be to have new monsters, treasure and numenera for every adventure, I seriously doubt I have the imagination to keep coming up with new monsters and treasure for it every couple of weeks.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

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