Type: Roleplaying Game
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
System: Cypher System
Size: 28.3cm x 22cm x 2.5cm
(5.0 / 5)
I first heard about Numenera by sheer chance, by looking up what Monte Cook had been up to and I discovered that he’d found substantial success on Kickstarter with a new game, using his own system, a new game by the weird name of Numenera. The game was so successful that, at the time of it’s conclusion, Numenera was the most successful RPG ever on Kickstarter.
Now when I first heard the name I figured that it was just a setting with a bizarre title, like Eberron, but after some research it became abundantly apparent that, just like everything in Numenera, Monte Cook had been thinking about this for a very long time and it was pitched perfectly. For those that are interested Numenera splits into two words in Latin, Numen and Era. The former has several meanings, Of the Gods or Divine, Command or Will and the later, obviously, means a Period in Time. In the context of Numenera the meaning translates to something like Divine from a Previous Age, which makes perfect sense since everything about this game is deeply rooted in what came before, these almost supernatural devices from ages past, these numenera.
The rulebook is 416 full colour pages hard bound with an sewn binding. The front and back inside covers display a full colour map of the ‘known’ world. It’s a beautiful book full of good artwork that evokes images of classic prog rock album covers (in fact prog rock album covers are a remarkable source of inspiration for games of Numenera) as well as interesting information about a world so distant from our own. Over it’s 9 chapters the book covers character generation, the rules, optional rules, monsters, history, the campaign setting, of course the Numenera in all 3 forms and also gives the standard handful of adventures to get you started. It’s a tried and tested format that gives you everything you’ll ever need to run and play Numenera in single core book. Also included is an A2 size poster map of the world, an addition I really like as I’m a bit of a sucker for maps of campaign worlds.
At the start of the book is a little framing fiction, The Amber Monolith which sets the scene for the world and can also be downloaded for free here- The Amber Monolith. The back of the book also has 11 pages (included in the page count) of Kickstarter backer names. I was unfortunate enough to discover Numenera after the Kickstarter and so I’m not on list but I think it’s a nice touch that the general release print of the book still contains the names of those who made it a reality.
A little bit of history
Before going into some detail about the system and how the game plays I think a little history lesson in the background of the setting would help. Numenera is set on Earth in the future, the distant, far, incomprehensible future of around a billion years or so from now. Numenera is set in the Ninth World and there have been eight previous worlds, each built by civilisations with such immense power that they could manipulate time, reality or matter on a molecular level, at will. These civilisations likely spanned galaxies or universes and were not all necessarily human.
The way I like to describe these previous worlds to players is that they could encompass pretty much any sci-fi or fantasy setting, show or movie that they can imagine, GW’s 40k? That could be just one world. Time Lords? That’s pretty likely, Star Wars or Star Trek? probably just blips or footnotes in the history of a single world. the world of Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels? almost certainly. When you imagine the scale of possible history in Numenera there is absolutely no limit. The history of Numenera is such that the world we live in now wouldn’t even come close to registering as a single previous world. Simply put, if you can imagine it, it could be in Numenera.
With that in mind it’s worth describing the world in Numenera, as it is. The setting is basically medieval, as the new civilisations of the Ninth world begin to rebuild and rise up to claim their eventual destiny (in a few million years), people live in cities or villages, they use animals to farm and bandits, brigands and monsters roam the land preying on the unwary. What makes Numenera different is that nothing is as it seems as the previous worlds have all left their mark on the planet, a day is 28 hours long, the air you breath is full of nano machines and mountains are fallen statues of kings and gods long forgotten. Everything has been changed or manipulated by the previous worlds.
All this change means the medieval world has a feeling closer to Planescape than Dragonlance, as the weird and wonderful is commonplace and accepted because it’s simply the way things are and have always been. These changes mean that, under the surface there are subtle differences. Some communities use floating drones to irrigate their crops, others live in cities built amongst huge networks of pipes, using them for heat or transit and other still worship these machines for their almost godlike powers.
So where to the players fit in? In Numenera there are 3 types or classes, Glaive, Nano and Jack which roughly translate as fighter, mage and rogue but the choices you have mean that it’s not quite that simple. In the world these characters seek out the numenera (more on those later) and explore the lost or forgotten places, either for the good of the world or, if they want, for their own profit. The game isn’t greatly suited to characters seeking to become rulers or overlords, although it can certainly be done, because the premise is that the characters are driven to explore and discover and not amass power and rule.
Character generation is simple and pretty unique in my experience. You start by creating a statement “I am an adjective noun that verbs‘ with the italicised words being taken from the options in the book, the adjective is your Descriptor, the noun is your Type (class) and the verb is your Focus. The book provides a number of options for each and I worked out that, out of the core book, there are some 900+ character variations based on the character generation system and that is before you take into account individual skills or cosmetic differences. An example of a character statement is something like ” I am a clever nano who bears a halo of fire” or “I am a rugged glaive who wields two weapons at once”.
Races are pretty simple, aside from a couple of alien races and mutants (all in the optional rules, rather than the default game), as everyone is assumed to be human, but not human in the traditional sense. Remember that Numenera is set a billion years in the future and so humans have been altered and altered themselves, have interbred with other species and have transcended what we would understand as human. That being said, right out of the gate my players wanted to be something a little more interesting, for example in one case, a player wanted to play a cloud of sentient nanites and so I just reskinned the basic human, worked with him to pick the right descriptor and type, and locked him into a mostly human form due to a malfunction. Numenera easily allows that kind of manipulation.
The simplicity of the system means that character generation only takes around 15 minutes from start to finish and far less if a player is content to just pick a cool statement over reading specifically what each ability does. The longest it took for a player in my group was about 20 minutes and that was for someone who wanted to be a mutant and so we had quite a lot of rolling on random tables to do. The only criticism I have about the chargen system is that some options seem far better than others, which isn’t a problem if you have a group that are more interested in form than function, but if you have powergamers in your party then there will probably be some moaning that some characters seem more powerful than others.
With how simple the system is combined with the weirdness of the world, a little flexibility from the GM and imaginative players, you can end up with some pretty interesting characters in your party. My group created a jack who looks a lot like Katsumi from Mass Effect with powers akin to the protagonist in the Dishonoured game, a mutant nano who looks like the Lizard from the Spiderman movie, a glaive wild man with fists of stone and a bladeling/tiger crossbreed for a pet and the aformentioned nano made from a malfunctioning sentient cloud of nanites that are, more or less, locked into a humanoid shape. I find it amazing that such wildly different and interesting characters can be achieved by just thinking about how the powers could be granted by a characters focus and applying that to the look and personality of the PC.
A critical part of the Cypher system is the players stats, Might, Speed and Intellect. These 3 stats act as hit points, talent pools and armor class all in one and give the players a huge amount of control over the action. A player can spend points from their pool to lower the difficulty of a challenge but they have to weigh that against the fact that a lower pool means that they are easier to hit and can take less punishment. Much as in D&D hit points are an intangible thing and relate more to the expenditure of energy or effort than to actual physical or mental punishment or damage. The logical extension of the idea that the depletion of these pools relates to stress or tiring is allowing a player to expend effort to give themselves a better chance at succeeding at a task, which is just what Numenera allows you to do. Using this system a player can spend Might to help force a door, Speed to carefully traverse a narrow ledge or Intellect to decipher particularly complex language.
The power level of a starting character in Numenera is much higher than in many fantasy adventure type games. Starting characters can have the ability to walk through walls or fly, they can have powerful animal companions or several immunities and the abilities of their powers are far less well defined that is commonplace, deliberately. Numenera is designed to make players think, to find interesting and outlandish uses for the resources at their disposal and to work as a group to solve the challenges that the GM puts in front of them. This works incredibly well if the players are into it but can be a bit of a struggle for players than are used to rigid descriptions of what they can and can’t do as it’s not quite as easy as just making sure you have as many +1’s to your roll as possible.
The Cypher System itself is amazingly easy to master and, 99% of the time, requires nothing more than a D20 and a good imagination to play. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail as your really should buy a copy for yourself, but, in short, the GM sets a difficulty level, for a task, of between 1 and 10 with each corresponding to a target number which is basically the difficulty multiplied by 3. The player rolls a D20 and if the hit or exceed the target then they succeed, otherwise they fail. Obviously hitting a 30 (difficulty 10) on a D20 is impossible, without and exploding dice mechanic, which doesn’t exist in this game, so the player can utilise skills or abilities to reduce the difficulty. All monsters, enemies or obstacles have a difficulty which translates into it’s hit points, damage, difficulty to hit and ability to hit players in return meaning that as long as the GM knows the difficulty then they pretty much know the entire stat line for the challenge which allows them to focus on the story rather than a book.
This leads me nicely into how combat works in Numenera and this was one of the harder things for me to grasp because I really like rolling dice. In Numenera the players roll all of the dice all of the time. The only time a GM might roll is to randomly generate treasure and treasure level, IF they want to roll it. In combat a creature’s level designates how hard it is to hit (difficulty 4 means you need to roll a 12+ to hit, for example) and how hard it’s attacks are to avoid (again, difficulty 4 means you need to roll a 12+ to avoid it’s attacks) and how much damage it does. This, again, allows a GM to focus completely on crafting a story over rolling dice and comparing them to difficulties, it also allows players to focus on the action and feel in more control than if the GM is rolling dice behind a screen and telling them their fate.
In it’s rule-set Numenera reminds me of a combination of FATE, D&D 4th edition and Pathfinder. It embodies the very best of the spirit of those systems while being something very special all of it’s own. Incidentally you can see aspects of Numenera in the recently released D&D 5th edition, something one of my more inexperienced players commented on while leafing through my 5th ed Players Handbook.
The rules of Numenera are quick to learn and teach and allow a player and GM to resolve conflict and obstacles quickly and cleanly. They expect imagination and ingenuity to be used throughout the game and so are flexible enough for the GM to be able to use them to make judgement calls on the fly in order to resolve quirky or unexpected outcomes (which happens a lot). Due to the speed of obstacle resolution, the emphasis on exploration and the simple rules ,GM’s should expect PC’s to complete substantially more in a session than if they were, for instance, playing D&D. Conversely, GM’s should be aware that this openness in the system makes it very difficult to plan a game, beyond a rough outline for a session, as there are so many different ways the players could complete the task at hand. GM’s need to think on their feet more than they may be used to in other fantasy games (though FATE GM’s will probably be used to this kind of GMing) and get used to making up things on the fly.
It’s worth noting that the actual rules of the game take up a fraction of the space in this book, as opposed to say Shadowrun which is 400 pages of dense and complicated information. Numenera is designed to be quick, simple and flexible and put story, exploration and player ingenuity ahead of combat, rolling dice and working out modifiers. From my personal point of view, after running a campaign with a complex rule-set for 2 years prior to starting Numenera, it came as a breath of fresh air to me and to my players.
Numenera in Numenera
At the heart of Numenera are the numenera, the lost artifacts of previous worlds that PC’s can find and employ during their exploration of the unknown. It needs to be explicitly stated, numenera are, for all intents and purposes, the magic items of the setting, as well as the name of the game and they come in 3 types, Artifacts, Oddities and Cyphers. Artifacts are powerful and long lasting items and they can be anything from a mass of pipes and wires that subdue sound, to a scrap of paper that displays a 3D map of the local area to a 9 fingered glove that confers telekinesis. Oddities are peculiar items with no discernible original use, although inventive players may find a use for them, and can anything you can imagine, a long as it’s weird. One Oddity I gave to a player is a short, crooked, amber coloured, metal wand that screams an incomprehensible phrase in an unknown language when it is pointed due east.
The final type of numenera is probably the most important and certainly the most abundant, the Cypher. Cyphers are pieces of ancient machines that have been salvaged and re-purposed to make them useful again as one shot items. I tend to think of Cyphers as being akin to potions in D&D only much more common and varied in their use. All characters begin the game with a number of Cyphers (2 or 3, depending on class) and they should use them often as they should find them regularly throughout their explorations. All Cyphers do one specific thing, be it turn armour invisible, create a wall of fire or allow a character to teleport 16 feet to the left and it is up to the players to employ them to succeed and again, players are encouraged to be inventive with their use. For example a player in my group used a force wall projector (which unsurprisingly projects a wall of force) as a makeshift slide to break the fall of another character after he was teleported some 100m in the air.
The fact that Numenera reminds me so much of Planescape is one of the things that endears this game to me most, since Planescape is how I cut my teeth as a DM and hold a special place in my heart. I have long considered Planescape to be the best campaign setting ever conceived and it’s no coincidence that Numenera embodies the best aspects of it since Monte Cook is responsible for a large part of Planescape and even mentions his desire to create something similar but uniquely different and infinitely less complex in the foreword to the Numenera core book.
The book is fantastic and well worth the asking price for it’s atheistic value alone but the fact that within it’s covers lies an interesting and evocative world combined with a flexible, fun and light system makes it a steal. It’s probably not a game for someone looking for a lot of crunch as the rules are pretty basic so as to allow players and GM’s to really push the weird. Any game that repeatedly reminds you to emphasise the weird is bound to get my vote as it allows a GM’s mind to run rampant with the wild ideas that just don’t quite fit in another setting.
Numenera plays and reads like a game that has been a labour of love, which can so often mean that a game has too much of the writer in it and is therefore only playable by them, with their idiosyncrasies. Fortunately, to me, Numenera deftly avoids that trap and results in a game that the commercial market can enjoy. After all how can a game with an NPC who wanders the world with his giant, sentient, floating carp companion be anything but awesome?
At the time of writing Numenera has 6 print expansions and many more available on Drivethrurpg