Numenera: Exploring the Lands

Numenera - Lands - Obelisk of the Water God

When I did my one-hour review of Numenera, I had to skim through some of the densest parts of the books to fit an overview in. This included the Setting and Creatures sections, which were not apparently essential to understanding what the game had to offer, though they looked interesting and imaginative. Now that I’ve had some more time to go back and look through these sections, it’s clear that the game designers managed their goal of merging science-fiction and fantasy well.

It’s maybe handy that I’m finally getting around to A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time  series, as I’m reading through Numenera because there are some handy connections. Like the Ninth World, the lands in Robert Jordan’s series live amidst the ruins of a former time that they don’t really understand and that seems crazy. Through glimpses into the past, we know that people before the Breaking had hovercars and laser guns just as people in earlier eras before Numenera likely did.

The difference here, though, is that the Ninth World is distinctly sci-fi in it’s themes and outlook. There are some heroes to celebrate and monsters to slay, but the hooks and adventures provided focus more on exploring and understanding. The unknown regions of the Ninth World feel more like the “new worlds and new civilizations” of Star Trek than the wild regions of Conan’s Hyperborea, as one example of contrast. It’s a hard thing to explain the feel of this game (a hallmark of Monte Cook) so I’ll just outline it by showing off the book instead of groping more.

The Steadfast

The heart of civilization in the Ninth World, and the place your PC is likely from, is a collection of nine kingdoms known as the Steadfast. Life might not always be safe here but it’s a helluva lot better than being in the barbaric lands beyond the limits of this area. Importantly, there’s nothing that really makes the kingdoms of the Steadfast work together, and there seems to be griping and tensions, but the people here understand that they need to hang together or they’ll be overrun.  Like the nations of the Westlands in Wheel of Time or the varied lands of Middle Earth, folks don’t have to get along with each other they just need to get along well enough to hold back the shadow.

Although the nations are spread from north-south along a stretch of ocean, I think it’s helpful to look at the strong lands together and the more precarious lands between them. Navarene is the richest land in the Steadfast, but it’s also pressed up against the strange Cloudcrystal Skyfields where spinning prisms fill the air. The nations northern border features several floating monoliths, one of which is the Amber Monolith that is a holy site for the pseudoreligious Order of Truth and another is the Obelisk of the Water God which sucks water from a great river to form an artificial catch-basin. These monoliths are some of several features that may be massive terraforming projects to affect the weather in the Ninth World.

South of Navarene is Draolis, whose capital Qi is the largest city in the known world and the central site for the Order of Truth. Qi is a city of tall buildings and lazy, floating zepplins and dirigibles, like King’s Landing on it’s way to being part of a steampunk setting. The most intriguing part is that there is no need for zepplins anywhere else, it’s just what folks do in Qi much like planets have their own quirks in sci-fi settings. Likewise, there is a castle in this land which seemingly builds itself up overtime by synthesizing new material from the air. No one knows how it works so it’s unique in the entire world… but there are so many of those things in Numenera that it’s a wondrous location instead of a world wonder.

A little farther south are Ancuan and the Pytharon Empire, side-by-side but hardly friends. The Pytharons once controlled many of the other nations and have trouble playing nicely, especially with so many wondrous numenera in its cities to brag about. The capital Rarmon has a spherical, adjustable palace and massive planetary orrery and in another part of the country the Twin cities are connected by a two-mile skyway tunnel, sadly now a shantytown of criminals.

The Empire would certainly like to get its hands on the other wonders, farmlands, and merchant ports of Ancuan to the west. Between the sibling deity/entities worshipped in the capital Glavis, the city of Ishlav where all inorganic material was destroyed twenty years ago in an accident with a numenera, and the strange city of Rarrow which is built half along a river and half in a parallel dimension.

Besides these powerful nations, there are five others that are either past their prime or just starting up. The Sea Kingdom of Ghan benefits from a robust merchant fleet but has to tread carefully with both Navarene and Draolis. Thaemor is a nation in trouble, ruled by an insane and obsessive man, while Malevich is gripped with a military fervor that sometimes outstrips its small size. Lastly, Iscobal is racked by political infighting as well as lingering scars from a queen who tried to control her subjects’ dreams through numenera.

The Beyond

There may be dangers and strangeness in the kingdoms of the Steadfast, but at least one knows the rules there. The Aeon Priests help to foster peace and understanding while the monarchs of the various nations keep order within their borders. Outside of the Steadfast are places so alien that even those used to numenera aren’t willing to travel.

One of these places is the Cloudcrystal Skyfields, a northern waste with spinning, drifting clusters of crystals that fill the air and a strange land below filled with corpse-cities, invisible lakes, cities built amid the massive pipeworks of previous eras. In the Black Riage mountains that form the eastern border of the Steadfast holds hidden and disturbing secrets like a fungus-city inhabited by grub-things, a hidden city where a god holds the moon every night, and a massive mountain that may or may not house a god-like machine intelligence. You do not want to mess around in this place.

Beyond the Black Riage are other strange places such as the star-shaped Caecilian Jungle where natural and mechanical creatures hunt and strange ruins are being swallowed by plants of all sorts. South of that are the Plains of Kataru which hold what is apparently a crashed starship, a field of broken white stones with a floating tree in the middle, and a semi-abandoned space elevator. Farther east you find Dessanedi, the Jagged Wastes which has it’s own bizarre features including a good number of mutant settlements but is also important as the gateway to the incredible Clock of Kala (see below).

South of the Plains and Jagged Wastes is another jungle, the Ba-Adenu Forest, which has everything from a massive city of exotic savages to pools of mud which periodically birth bloodthirsty, hound-like creatures. Continuing south and east you reach the crusted-over salt sea of Errid Kaloum and the twin Divided Seas  where strange cults of salt-worshipping monotheists and devotees of a giant, floating android head can both be found.

Across the seas are the constantly-undulating Amorphous Fields, my favorite feature of which is the underground city of Vebar that merges Menzoberranzan with Cthulhu and includes the phrase “the local god, Ourthalas, and the homes of his blind wife-priestesses.” Awesome.

Back towards the Steadfast is the land of Seshar that was once a prosperous kingdom of the Steadfast but has now collapsed into disorder. Bordering both Seshar and the Pytharon Empire is Matheunis the Cold Desert which is far from empty with the crawling citadel-artifice of Nihliesh and the fortress of psychics called the Citadel of the Iron Saint, to name just a few crazy locales.

Beyond the Beyond

The Beyond may be strange but at least it’s merely strange lands. Through the numenera of past ages, people have also found their way to a variety of strange dimensions, worlds, and other strangeness.

The Clock of Kala beyond the Jagged Waste is a miles-wide ring of stone as tall as a mountain that is broken by just one passage, a 320-mile long cleft through the Clock called the Sheer. Within the ring-mountain is a paradise-like land called Augur-Kala, inhabited by strange folk who look human but live for centuries and see the world very differently.

Entirely outside of the Ninth World is the parallel universe called the University of Doors a place of unknown origin and demanding academics. You might find a hidden door in a massive tree, at the bottom of an invisible lake, or in the mind of a retired headmaster. The University combines a means of “magical” travel, an Illuminati-type organization, and a source of information on obscure numenera all rolled into one place.

Parting Thoughts

A lot of people around the interwebz have said they have trouble envisioning science-fantasy. Reading through this Setting chapter has given me a clearer view: it’s a science-fiction construct draped with the clothing of a fantasy setting. When describing Numenera to people I often contrast it with Star Wars, illustrating the difference between science-fantasy and space fantasy.

Space fantasy, like Star Wars, is a fantasy story that happens to be set in space with lasers and androids. It’s got warriors and princesses and strange lands, they just happen to be warriors with laser swords, princesses of whole planets, and strange lands you have to zoom past stars to get to.

On the other hand, science-fantasy has common sci-fi elements like parallel dimensions, mechanized buildings, and nanotechnology, they just happen to be parallel dimensions filled with Renaissance-style universities, mechanized buildings used as palaces, and nanotechnology that people think of as magical. Skimming this chapter, one might think of it as a purely fantasy setting since all the right words are there: knighthood, king, merchant guilds. But moving through this land involves jumping from one strange and unique culture to another, much like moving between planets in a science-fiction game.

The “magical locations” all have a scientific and technological source, which means that players will be best rewarded when they puzzle out the logic of the device or site. The sci-fi elements are subtle but core in this game. Even if they and their characters have no idea how a floating monolith or mechanized insect swarm works, someone built it and they had to lay it out in a logical way. This may share some elements with puzzle-based dungeons, but without the “organic” feel of magic or the clockwork nature of most dungeon traps it is pretty different.