One-Hour Library Review: Numenera

When I first started playing in D&D, I didn’t start out in a “standard” fantasy setting like Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. I started off in the weird, nightmarish, wonderful, though-provoking realms of Planescape, traveling from the City of Doors through portals to all corners of the multiverse. Behind this remarkable setting is a man named Monte Cook who started his own company years ago and created a number of fantastic d20 products like the epic-scaled urban setting of Ptolus and the psionic adventure If Thoughts Could Kill. When Monte joined the development team for D&D Next, I was excited and eager to see what his reunion with Wizards of the Coast would yield. When he left the project suddenly and without much explanation, I was disappointed but curious what else he had planned.

That’s when I started to see teasers for Numenera. It looked strange and confusing and intriguing and bizarre. It looked like everything I loved about Planescape, and every subsequent teaser is even more interesting. Now I have the pdf in front of me and I can’t wait to delve in for my first hour with the book. Come on down the rabbit hole…

This book is big. Like, really big. You may remember that I had a hard time getting through Shadowrun Fifth Edition in an hour, and this book is probably just as hard. But we’ll see how it goes.

New World, New Game

The first section starts with an introduction by Monte Cook, outlining his credentials and the scope of the game. I’m just really skimming, but it outlines the basic mash-up that inspired the game. “[I wanted] a world that fused science fiction and fantasy, but not in the usual mixed-genre sort of way. Instead, it was a place that felt like fantasy but was actually science fiction.” Sort of a reverse of Star Wars, I guess, which feels like sci-fi but is actually just wizards and knights and pirates. It features the Arthur C. Clarke quote in the section header: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” All of this makes me really eager to get into the meat of this game so I’ll skip the rest of this and the fiction following Monte’s intro to see what we have.

Part 1: Getting Started

Each of these parts is a collection of a few different chapters and this one includes the setting stuff and the How to Play section. A few basics are here to establish the gameworld including the tagline for the whole game: Welcome to the Ninth World. Numenera is a world built on the bones of eight different ages that have come before. Like Monte Cook’s Ptolus game, the navigation of this book is great with important terms in bold and a constant stream of references in the margins with page references and short definitions.

I won’t delve into the people here but the description of the three types of numenera might be helpful since they are, after all, the game’s namesake. Artifacts are large devices which are usable more than once, maybe like magic items; and cyphers are small devices which are usually one-use, like scrolls or potions; and oddities are strange things with no obvious use, really just curios that people might collect and trade.

More meaty is the section on How to Play Numenera. At first glance this looks like a version of the d20 system, but on second glance it seems complicated and strange. To take on a task, the game master sets a difficulty of 1-10 which then gives you a target number that’s three times the difficulty (so a difficulty 5 task is TN 15, etc). Why not just have difficulties be 1-30? Maybe they want the step-function effect of discreet values.

For individual characters they can be trained in a skill and reduce the difficulty by a step (and so the target number by 3), or they might be specialized in that skill and really great at it. Combat works the same way, but weapons do specific amounts of damage (2 points for light, 4 for medium, and 6 for heavy) rather than rolling. Armor reduces damage and ranges are immediate, short, and long.

Part 2: Characters

Time to find out who is exploring this here world and system. Character creation starts with three stats: might, speed, and intellect. Each of these stats has two components: pool which is your “raw, innate ability” while edge is your ability to use that pool. You also have a limited amount of effort which can boost your chances at succeeding at something with a given stat; the higher the stat, the more effort available.

There are also skills to consider, which can be anything you can think of including astronomy, smashing, intimidation, or escaping. Like D&DNext these provide a training bonus to certain rolls.

With these tools, you’re ready to make a character. The system uses the paradigm of a sentence with three parts to describe character generation: “I am an adjective noun who verbs.” The adjective part is the type, the noun part the descriptor, and the verb part the focus.

The first step to creating a character is to pick a character type which gives you your stats (a set amount then more points to specialize) and your abilities at each tier (like level). The character types are…

  • Glaive: Elite warriors that get fighting moves that generally cost pool points to use. These might be the ability to bypass armor, hitting extra hard with a weapon, or something more acrobatic and impressive.
  • Nano: The mages of Numenera that use the omnipresent nanoswarms around the Ninth World like magic. The esoteries of nanos cover all manner of typical spell uses like telekinetic pushing, a warding barrier, or turning invisible.
  • Jack: The widely-skilled jacks with their tricks of the trade are really just combinations of both of the other types.

Once you pick your character type, you pick a description like charming or learned or stron-willed that adds some in-game benefits to your character. These give you a package of abilities, skill trainings, and modifiers. You might not get every benefit from the descriptor (if you can’t you esoteries being better with some is inconsequential) but the lists of benefits are all pretty long so there’s plenty to choose from.

Last of all there is the character focus, what you do on a consistent basis. These all have pretty colorful names like Bears a Halo of Fire” or “Works the Back Alleys” but they really just give you some interesting equipment, maybe some new nanotech abilities, and a place in the world. Unlike the one-time descriptors, foci continue to grow as you increase in ability. Some of these foci are pretty crazy too: “Howls at the Moon” essentially makes you a werewolf while “Exists Partially Out of Phase” makes you… well that one’s probably obvious.

Once you have a character and want equipment, there is a list of strange an interesting materials from past ages that you can use with intriguing descriptions. “Azure steel: This bluish metal is not steel and may not be from Earth at all… Organic stone: Although it has the appearance and strength of granite… this material is grown rather than quarried.” Craziness.

Armor and (again) weapons only come in three levels of strength each but they aren’t completely abstracted. For instance, your glaive can pay more for special materials and get a metalweave vest which gives you heavy-level protection with medium-level speed reduction. You might also want to decide between the low-tech blowgun, the high-tech buzzer with more expensive ammo, or the dart thrower with long range. All are light weapons but the subtle differences can change things.

Part 3: Playing the Game

Now we’re into the mechanics of the game with just fifteen minutes left. the Rules of the Game are familiar to experienced roleplayers: there are rounds with each character getting one turn per round and one action per turn. Something fun and distinct, though, is the concept that the player always rolls. If you’re swinging at a monster, you roll to attack. If it’s swinging at you, you roll to dodge. The focus is always on the players which is a really neat idea that falls into the “why haven’t I thought of this before?” category.

There are some special results, however, for a natural 1, 17, 18, 19, or 20. For a natural 1, the action probably fails but the GM also gets to mess with you a little (called an “intrusion” which seems a bit harsh). A natural 17 – 20 for an attack means extra damage while a natural 19 – 20 for any sort of roll means good things for the player character.

I’m going to skip past some sections like the mechanics of attacks and cooperative actions to get to the next chapter: “Optional Rules.” Here are some of the more complicated options that you can make use of with GM approval. These include trading damage for effects like knock back or disarm, adding some special rules to your weaponry, or customizing your character type, descriptor, or focus.

There are also some examples of intrusions the GM can pull out for messing up badly like lasting damage that just won’t heal. For really adventurous PCs/GMs you can also play as something other than human including the interstella Visitants, the body-modifying Varjellen, the hybrid warrior lattimor, or the self-explanatory mutants.

Part 4: The Setting

As usual with these reviews, I’m running short on time as I get towards the end of the book… And by that I mean that I’m currently on page 130 out of 417 with only five more minutes. Expect some more reviews of the Setting later but for now let’s just breeze through as we can.

The world of Numenera is split into two sections: the Steadfast where the civilized folk live and the Beyond where everything is crazy and hamburgers eat people. Never fear that things are too abstracted in this setting because this chapter is over a hundred pages of excellent maps, NPCs, cities, and organizations.

Part 5: Creatures & Characters

The Monster Manual of Numenera is split into Creatures and Non-Player Characters, in total about fifty pages of baddies to fight. Let me just sum up these by saying that Numenera creatures are super-weird, as you can see from the pictures on this review.

Part 6: The Numenera and Part 7: Running the Game

This background information gives a GM everything they need to bring the game to life, which is a hallmark of anything written by Monte Cook. As an example, which might be easily overlooked, the third category of items called oddities are really just background color. It’s hard to overstate this but one-third of all magic items are enriching story elements. This is why I knew I had to get behind anything with the Cook name on it…

Part 8: Adventures

There are four different prewritten adventures in the book, from a wilderness exploration in The Beale of Boregal to a dungeon-crawl in Seedship. Definitely enough to get you started with maps and stat blocks to answer all your questions, in awesome detail thanks to the involvement of Monte Cook.

Conclusion

This book is far too much to delve into in one sitting, but the mechanics and the feel of the game seem great. Character creation and play seem realy simple but also with a lot of room for improvisation and personalization. There are some things that will seem vague to people used to the hyper-specific mechanics of D&D 4e but they are no more vague than Dark Heresy or A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, and in fact are more detailed even if the rules are a little abstract.

In all, if you are a fan of strangeness and fantasy with a little less heroics but not diminishing of epic plots, this is a setting to try. The book is massive and likewise pricey but really great and beautifully designed. The hyperlinks, quotes, and images will help you navigate and the feel of the book will get you thinking right away. Check it out, like yesterday.

The Numenera Corebook by Monte Cook is available now on Amazon.