And by 8 previous reviews, I of course mean a gazillion. When we put out the call for You Pick It Reviews, Numenera was one of the big ones on the list. I half considered letting the many other reviews:
and videos out there just speak for it, but as I looked through my copy, I couldn’t help but write about it. Cook catches me in his introduction, and in the incredible art, when he mentions his inspiration from Moebius and his desire for a simple, yet mechanical, game that focuses on the narrative but doesn’t ditch the mechanics. So here is my review of Numenera to add to the pile. I’m going to try to be concise but complete, since there are many other examples out there.
What It Is And Isn’t
Numenera is Monte Cook’s vision of an idea that he had been toying with for his entire career. The setting is the first thing that will catch many people, but the game system is something that will feel familiar but new to most gamers. Set a billion years in the future, the earth has seen the rise and fall of the world 8 times over and is currently in the Ninth World. The world is big and odd and wonderful and weird, and the people living there now know that they don’t know everything about it. The planet holds the incredible secrets of the past civilizations and many have been unlocked, but no matter how many wonders of the past are recovered there will always be more. The system feels reminiscent of d20 creations only in the fact that it uses a d20 and there is something akin to classes. However, much of the mechanical complexity is removed from the base system and every crunchy element of a character is tied into something that “makes sense” as to why it works. I found the system incredibly easy to understand and could see drifting it over to replace the systems in Pathfinder, Shadowrun, or other traditional games with an action packed feel tied into the narrative. The system can be removed from the setting, but the book intertwines them together in a major way that makes it feel like they belong together inherently. There is unlimited room for stories and themes within the Ninth World setting, and nothing really feels out of place here, but at it’s core Numenera is a game about digging into the past and experiencing the oddity of this strange new world.
Character Creation in Numenera is a fairly easy process. In its very simplest form, it boils down to filling in blanks in the sentence “I am an adjective noun who verbs.” The blanks are all written down in the book and let you drop in the mechanical elements easily based on the options you choose.
Adjective – The adjectives are character descriptors like Charming, Graceful, Intelligent, Stealthy, etc. and give you various options to fit that descriptor. Graceful makes you more mechanically agile, grants you skills that involve balance and performing, and gives you some points in your speed and agility.
Noun – The Noun is your Character Type, which is essentially a class. There are only 3. This seems odd, and being a person who likes lots and lots of choice I had to wrap my head around this limited selection. The three types are fairly broad in their implementation. They are Glaive (Warrior), Nano (Wizard-like), and Jack (rogue-like). The thing that I had to come to understand was that these did not limit my thematic options. They provided good solid mechanical choices to let a character fight better or be better at magical type effects, but nothing prevented me from being a Rugged Nano or a Mystical Glaive and wrap more direct thematic elements of who and what and why into the character from there.
Verb – The final element in character creation is the verb, and in this case it is called the Focus. The focus is your character’s unique ability. Something that they do really well. It is suggested that no two people in the party have the same focus. Focuses are things like Commands Mental Powers, Explores Dark Places, Fuses Flesh and Steel, Wields Power With Precision, etc. They give you different abilities as you go up in tiers (levels, but broader. There are 6.) and lets you have a special thing all your own.
Character creation is not just these 3 words and you take what you are given. These 3 help determine what types of powers you have access to and your base points in attributes of Might, Intellect, and Speed. These attributes don’t affect rolls, but they are point pools you use to activate the powers and abilities you gain from your type, focus, descriptors, and some of the tech you will use. You can also apply 3 points from a stat pool as “effort”. Trying to push down a wall on an enemy? Make it easier by applying levels of Effort from your Might pool. You’ll be physically exhausted for a while, but you succeeded by pushing yourself, not just because of luck.
Finally, the other thing that makes up your character is equipment and bits of tech (called cyphers, artifacts, and generally Numenera). These aren’t just magic items that give +1. These are things that enable extra, unique powers. Things like the Analyzing Shield, which is transparent and points out weak points in the enemy to increase damage. The Temporal Viewer allows a wearer to look into the past and see something that occurred in that area before. The little tech bits are unique and interesting, and they are meant to be found, lost, used up, and regained. The big ones become integral parts of the characters. The bits of tech in Numenera feel like the best bits of Shadowrun equipment lists, but with the same ease of use as the rest of the system displays.
Let’s get talking about the system. The one critique that I have heard about Numenera’s system is that it feels like a standard d20 game. In some ways it does, but what I think those critiques are missing out on is the fact that it feels like d20 games should feel. The system is simple and there is one very nifty element that can’t be ignored. The players are the only ones to ever roll. It goes like this:
- Player rolls a d20 against a Task Difficulty between 1 and 10. They have to beat the target number (which is always 3 times the difficulty. Difficulty 1 is target number 3, difficulty 8 is target number 24.)
- The skills, powers, tech, and effort applied from their stat pools lower the difficulty, even down to 0 difficulty. Environmental factors or complications can raise it or lower it (taking cover, shooting at something behind cover, etc.).
- That’s it. It’s easy. It handles everything. Even combat? Yes, check it out…
- When you attack, you roll against the opponent’s level, which is their task difficulty number.
- When you get attacked, you roll to dodge or block, same d20.
- Fight a level 5 creature, you have to beat 15 on the roll to do damage or avoid attacks.
- Damage is static, so a successful attack deals the damage of the attack.
- It works the same in other situations as well. Try to negotiate with an NPC, the target number is their level.
- NPCs and enemies sometimes have modifications to show that they are better in some ways. I.E. Perception is at Level 3, so that they are better at noticing things.
- An enemy or NPC is as easy to write up as “Ghabhail: level 5, level 6 with polearm; 2 points of Armor (damage reduction by 2).
That’s pretty much it. There are powers and other abilities that add options, but they follow that same simple principle and make it easy for the dice to determine results and then get out of the way. What strikes me about this system is the fact that I can instantly see ways to include new things not written up. So I want a new enemy, easy to do. Do I want to make a new cypher that teleports in a way different to the one there, it’s a couple of sentences to change the narrative and the effect and doesn’t create a huge overbalancing issue.
The setting of Numenera is the Ninth World, a strange place where everything fits. There have been 8 previous worlds and their technology and abilities were grand and incredible beyond belief, sometimes. The Ninth World is very well detailed and laid out, filling the 100 or so pages dedicated directly to it. The races (humans and a whole lot of everything else you can image), the organizations (varied, absolute, and none control the entirety of anything), and the creatures, extra-dimensional visitors, alien visitors, demonic and god-like beings, and landscapes (any and everything), are all written about in great evocative detail, but none of it locks anything else out or has any kind of supremacy or control over the entirety of existence. The past remains a mystery, there is always something different around the corner, and the world is big and unknowable in it’s entirety. What is believed or known in one place is not the truth elsewhere. There are no absolutes and that is awesome. There is ample ground for any type of story you want to tell. The setting section of the book makes a great place to mine for information, but there was nothing there that I felt like I was tied to in my own games. The presentation of the setting is excellent, allowing for mystery to lie just beyond wherever you are now and the Game Master and players to change things as they see fit or need.
By now you can probably tell that I am pretty impressed with Numenera. I didn’t expect to be. When things get hyped up I have a small tendency to avoid them because I am endlessly being told how good they are. I didn’t back the kickstarter because of the hype around it. Now, I really wish I had just so my name could be in this incredible book. The writing in Numenera changed my initial perceptions almost immediately. It seems like it was written with the intent of removing as many barriers to entry as possible. Picking up the base system was easy to grasp and the text tried to explain what was necessary to understand at that moment in a simple and concise way. Descriptions of what powers and abilities did and meant were repeated in the various sections that housed them, so it wasn’t hard to get the general reminder when paging through the book and trying to understand character options. One great implementation was the sidebars. The rather large margins had side notes that referenced other places in the text. If it mentioned the Thrust ability in the text, the word was highlighted and the sidebar had a reference to the main listing for it. If a setting-specific creature was mentioned, I knew just where to find more information by looking to the side of the page. You can definitely see the influence of the modern age and information display in the design of the book. Small quotes were also used in the side of the book to provide a little flavor. The sidebars were easily ignorable though, mostly because the text color was slightly different and blended in.
Amazing. That is the only way to sum up the art in Numenera. The art in the book is incredibly evocative of the feel of the world. It was also packed into the book. There were very few pages without art. The odd, weird and mysterious are all played up in the pictures and there are a few subtle references to other genres, movies, tropes, and things that inspired the artists, or at least it seemed like there were. If that wasn’t the case, then the artists did a great job connecting with their audience. The art fit many different genres and styles. Some art feels like it could fit in planescape, while some wouldn’t look out of place in superhero comics, renaissance paintings, or an episode of Aeon Flux, but it all felt like it belonged to the Ninth World. The art really helps buoy up the idea that anything can happen in this place. My only complaint would be that art gets re-used a bit in the pages. Something that exists on page 185 was used previously on page 74 or 112. However, that also helped the reference feel of the book. The art is re-used when it helps illustrate something in the test. Having the art next to a character so that the GM doesn’t have to flip through a hundred pages to find it again would actually be very helpful as you reference something.
I became entranced with Numenera and impressed by the simplicity and openness, at least once I got over the fact that there were only 3 “classes”. The type of thinking that creates those small criticisms quickly erodes when getting into the work. While a surface glance would seem to suggest that this is a very particular game in a very particular setting, a deeper reading makes you notice that those boundaries are past the edges of your perception and anything could happen within them. You could play a whole medieval society locked away in a secluded mountain range with no knowledge of the outside world and it would fit. You could have the Doctor show up for a while and it wouldn’t feel too out of place. It would change the feel of the game a bit (Doctor Who being a more concretely known element than much of what exists in the Ninth World), but it wouldn’t feel like it couldn’t exist there. Even the map (a nice large foldout map in the back and on many pages) hints that there is much beyond the borders of what is shown. Numenera is a book I would highly recommend picking up. The rules would be simple for a one-night game or a long campaign and everything about it just feels fun to play.
Have you already played or run Numenera? What are your impressions of it? What are some of your favorite elements or what did you dislike?