Numenera: The Rules Bit

Numenera is kind of a big deal. From Monte Cook, the mind behind many amazing things and one of the godfathers of PDF Publishing, its kickstarter raised over half a million dollars (more than Fate, though we had more backers). The book itself is a mammoth tome filled with gorgeous art which holds the promise a mind blowing setting and a possible new direction for RPGs.

I’m steadily working my way through it, and I break here to report as I get to the end of the mechanics section because, honestly, that’s what I was most curious about. There is also a strong likelihood that it’s the weakest part of the game – it certainly seems like the setting holds a lot of promise.

Before I get into the good and bad, I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page – viewed through a certain lens, Numenera isa bog standard fantasy game with everything renamed to sound exotic and all the handwavey “magic” replaced with handwavey ’“science”. It is closer to “D&D with Science” than even Gamma World.

While I’m not sure that lens is 100% fair – going with science fantasy rather than straight fantasy opens up some stylistic options – it still seem largely on the mark. However, it’s not an automatic criticism – there’s a reason that adventures with Fighters, Thieves and Wizards killing monsters and exploring ruins holds up as a model, and it will ultimately live and die by the details and quality of the setting which, as noted, I haven’t gotten to yet, so for the moment I will assume that it is pure gold.

This ends up being important on another axis, as the primary activity in Numenera is, nominally, exploration. There’s no XP for killing monsters, but there is for digging up old artifacts and discovering secrets. And even thought he book is a little snide in acknowledging that you get what you reward, it definitely tilts that way. The problem, of course, is that exploration is trickier in practice than in theory, because it’s not just a function of content, but also of transmission and translation. It can easily translate into infodumps and sock puppet theater unless some steps are taken to keep it flowing. Presumably, this is addressed int he GMing chapter, so again, for the moment, I wil assume there is great advice about how to handle that forthcoming. For now, I’ll just focus on the mechanics.

Oh, one last caveat. I will not be using game-specific terms here unless I really feel like it. Numenera pretty much re-invents every piece of gaming teminology it can[1], and it’s a bit annoying, so if I say “level” instead of “tier” it’s because I would rather explain the game.

Ok, so the core mechanic is based on steps (or levels), which equate to a difficulty of level x 3, which you are trying to beat on a d20 roll. So, something that’s level 3 difficulty (whether it’s the monster you’re attacking, the lock you’re picking or whatever) then your’e trying to beat a 9.

If you’ve got skills or tools that can help you out, those can reduce the difficulty by a number of steps (1 or 2 for skill, 1 or 2 for assets) and if you get the difficulty to 0, there’s no need to roll (and since there’s no margin of success component, that’s fine). Mathematically it’s really just a bunch of +3 bonuses, but I understand the reasoning of going in steps – it makes a lot of other mechanics behave a little more elegantly without inviting fiddly bits (those are largely saved for the optional rules)

Difficulties go as high as 10 (requiring a 30), and if the target number can’t be hit, then it’s deemed impossible, so there’s no “hoping for a crit”. High and low dice results still produce fumbles and extra damage type effects, but it’s subordinate to the difficulty rules. And, notably, all rolls are made by players, something that should feel very familiar to DL5A fans.

All good so far, though it suggests a fairly failure-heavy spread from looking at the basic math and assuming that best case (4 steps) is not super common. And that’s where effort comes in.

Basically, every character has 3 “pools” of points, one for might, one for speed, one for intellect. These have multiple uses, but the first and foremost one is that you may spend 3 points from the appropriate ability to reduce a difficulty by one step. I admit, my first thought was “Well then why not let me just spend 1:1, since I’m spending 3 to reduce difficulty by 3” but there’s a clever mechanic which addresses that. Pools also may have an “edge” score, which provides a discount on expenditure, so I may be getting a better ratio than 1:1. There’s also an “effort” rating that limits how much you can spend from a pool, but that’s less interesting.

Taking those basics, you can engage in a simple but interesting chargen process. The core of this is a fill-in-the-blanks sentence of “I am a blank blank who blanks” which unpacks into “I am a {Descriptor} {Class} who {Focus}”. So, “I’m a Tough Glaive who Carries a Quiver” for example.

Class is the most straightforward of the three – there are three classes – fighter, Mage and generalist (more properly Glaive, Nano and Jack). They do pretty much what you would expect – hit stuff, blast stuff and a little bit of everything, respectively.

Descriptors are more interesting and clever. They are largely things like “Rugged” or “Clever”, but rather than just providing a simple bonus, they provide a range of bonuses of different types, as well as potentially some drawbacks. Most interestingly, they include a small random table which includes the character’s initial link to the starting adventure. I love this, and think it’ll be super cool for con play.

There are only a dozen descriptors in the book, but there are guidelines for making more, so that seems like a fair number.

Focuses are kind of a big deal. I had expected something comparable to descriptors, but mechanically they’re a lot closer to a subclass. Not only do they include potent abilities and bonuses out the gate, but they offer powers and abilities for the character to buy as they level up. They range from being a more badass fighter to basically being Magneto, and I’m super intrigued to see their balance in play. They also include one connection to another character, which is a nice touch.

So, you pick those three things, make some choices within each one (basically which abilities you want), buy some gear and you’re good to go. if you get in a fight, you make a roll against the level of your opponent, and if you hit, inflict some damage based on your weapon, minus armor. If you get attacked, then roll to defend, and if you get hit, take damage to the appropriate pool.

When you’re ready to advance, every 4 XP buys you an ability, every 4 abilities levels you up. XP can also be used for rerolls and temporary bonuses, and while there are other avenues, you’re largely going to get it via exploration rewards or GM Intrusion.

GMI is something very much like a compel in Fate, where the GM declares that something bad happens, and you can either pay one XP to refuse, or accept 2 XP (one of which you immediately give to another player – a great touch).

So, that’s the very high level on it, but what does it mean? Well, a few highlights:

The Good

  • This looks and feels like it would play very quickly and produce some fairly distinctive characters.
  • The range of focuses goes a ways towards offsetting the narrowness of class choices.
  • Core rules are light enough that I explained them in 4 tweets. That’s a good thing for teaching.
  • Nothing to do with the rules, but the book is lovely and the PDF is well hyperlinked. Solid art throughout, and a functional layout.
  • GM Intrusion reward going to another player is wonderful

The Bad

  • I do not like expending pools for effort – its the main reason I’m not a big fan of Gumshoe, which I find otherwise brilliant. Numenera offers some clever fixes to the model (the edge mechanic, especially) but it offsets that by equating pools with health, which seems to invite a very profound death spiral. I am also leery of pools with such a large die as the d20 – spending your maximum and blowing a roll is largely unfun.
  • But not as unfun as spending an XP for a reroll and still failing. I have a great aversion to systems that allow the spending of XP for transient bonuses which got pounded into my head playing 7th Sea. Numenera has cool, fun advancement options, and despite sidebars about how advancement’s not really that important, it’s clearly a big deal. Broadly, players are incentivized to hoard XP, and effectively punished if they use it, even if they use it for something cool.
  • And, seriously, saying that if players do hoard XP, you should force them to spend it? That seems kind of dickish.
  • Oh god, the terminology
  • Little digs at D&D or other game sin the text may or may not be intentional, but they feel kind of petty
  • GM Intrusion is pretty much the worst name for a mechanic ever, If I named something that, it would be because I was being forced to put something I didn’t like and didn’t use into a book by my editor. No one had a gun to Monte’s head, so I dunno what’s up.

The Uncertain

  • I am totally unclear if you can spend yourself into unconsciousness, but it seem like you can.
  • Early on, the rules seem very adamant at the maximum potential number of steps a character can get without effort, but later rules seem to suggest that situational modifiers may go much farther than that.
  • So, I love the content of the Focuses, but that was the point in the book where my thinking of “oh, wow, this will be great for quick pickup play!” crumbled to so much dust. There are enough of them, with implications that extend throughout the life of a character, that they’re going to be the big slowdown point for chargen. It’s a tradeoff for their complexity and depth, but it broke my heart a little.
  • I’m a bit kinder to this game than I might normally be because I feel it’s intentionally pitched to newer players, or at least previously D&D only players, so I am forcing myself to be forgiving of design decisions  because I am not necessarily the audience for this. However, this means I’m going to be holding the setting and GM chapters to a much higher bar, so we’ll see how that goes.

The Bottom Line

So, those two bits that bug me, REALLY bug me a lot, But I recognize that while I have reasons for that, there is a taste element to it, and perhaps Numenara dodges these things in play (if it does not, it’s trivially hacked, but that is predicated on it meriting continued play). So, I’ll seek it out – I’ll try to run some, and ideally play a little. It’s interesting enough to merit that.

  1. Seriously, I have not seen a game be so heavy handed with this since Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth. In any other game, it would be a kiss of death, but Monte has a lot of fans, and we’ve already bought the game, so he can get away with it. At my most cynical, it seems to me an intentional move to foster a sense of community, to sort of forcibly create a subculture for the game through language. It’s not a crazy idea, especially if the thinking is that the audience is mostly just d20 escapees. But if so, I also find it a little creepy.  ↩

11 thoughts on “Numenera: The Rules Bit

  1. Bill Hamilton

    One thing to note based on your comments (I haven’t read the game). If everything is done in steps of 3 points, then that d20 is effectively a d6. Well, a d6&2/3 but that would be the most confusing die ever so just no.

    Which makes me wonder why he didn’t just use a d6 instead and not worry about the steps, but I’m not a super genius game designer so what do I know? :p

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Quick answer is that it allowed for finer grained bonuses. While MOST things are done in steps, there are still edge cases that might grant you a +1 or +2, effectively allowing for “half steps” which a d6 wouldn’t allow.

      That said, that may be backfilled functionality – it’s possible they started from the d20 and built out, since the d20 is the gaming die to many.

      1. Erik Alfkin

        I vaguely recall him talking about wanting to go with a d100 first but backing off on that because he thought players wouldn’t like it.

  2. Arashinomoui

    After playing Deadlands Classic for more than a year with its chip pulls that are “stay alive” chits AND XP, I am so very happy I didn’t invest. Maybe I’ll pick up the PDF for the setting at some point, but wow.

    Though, I do love the complicated character creation from the basic three terms – I already try to summarize my characters this way based off some guidance I’ve read from Debra Dixon.

  3. brindy

    I like the term Tier over Level for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, in Numenera level relates directly to task difficulty, tier does not.

    Secondly, the usual of implication of level is that your character doesn’t advance until they’ve earned enough XP but as you’ve already pointed out, a character can advance four times per tier so for me it’s not really the same thing at all.

  4. Ed Gibbs

    Can you please review every roleplaying game ever made, please? I think your insight is brilliant and your writing is sharp and on-point. And I’m not just saying that because you saved me X-dollars on Numenara.

  5. Pingback: Numenera Wrap Up | The Walking Mind

  6. bps

    I wouldn’t mind the author’s fixation on alternative nomenclature if the new terms were actually used appropriately. A mental adjustment I had to make when reading the Corebook was that a “tier” in Numenera isn’t a tier in the ordinary sense at all but actually just a level: a first tier character is at the bottom of the level system, not the top.

  7. Tore wathne

    Thanks for a great (and balanced) review, just bought cypher chest and will try out the game using odds and ends i can decipher from the net… But if my players like what they see, ill definitely buy the numenera book. It looks just awesome! I just watched nausicaa valley of the wind, and then this great game comes along… With its indie feel, shadow of yesterday-ish resolution. Im so hyped for this! Gone are the days of spending hours writing down npc/monster stat blocks. – My only real concern with the six tiers (and four sub-tiers between each tier, or advances i believe theyre called) is that i fear level advancement can be fiendishly fast! Too fast for my taste… But thats easily remedied. Ive decided to multiply advancement cost per advance by the pc’s current tier. That should slow things down, and now players will be more motivated to spend their xp on story, rerolls and other fun stuff… As these costs are static. After all, hoarding will break this game, imo. Seen it happen before in other indie titles… But a clever GM should soon realize that the instant players hoard xp… It most likely means the scenario is a cakewalk, and that its time to up the ante!

  8. Charles

    My group took a few months and rolled through one of the pre-made adventures last year.

    You were a bit more forgiving of the game than we were. The only thing we liked was the Adjective-Noun-that-Verbs character gen. Aside from that we found the experience to be entirely be un-fun.

    If Numinera were a character in its own game it would be a Unpleasant Game that Fails to Entertain.


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