How to Judge Numenera

So, it seems pretty clear I’m going to be chewing on Numenera for a while, so i want to step back a bit and check some of my own assumptions. This struck me while I was going through the book and I noticed some art re-use, and I totally had a neckbeard-y instinctive response of “really?” and just as quickly realized that was perhaps unfair. Yes, Numenera is a lovely book, and yes, it’s clearly got a lot of fun art, but that does not mean that budgets are infinite and that it wasn’t the best solution.

And that brings up the question of how to evaluate Numenera as a product. There’s an argument that this shouldn’t be necessary, and that every game can be fairly judged on its content, whether it’s from Wizards of the Coast or run off on some guys inkjet printer. And maybe that’s true for someone who is not me, but for me the source makes a big difference. It speaks about what could have been done (and wasn’t) as well as to the intended audience for the game (or if the game even has the idea of a target audience).

And that gets fiddly with Numenera, which is to say, with Monte Cook[1] (and since the imprint is Monte Cook games, the issue’s right out there in the open). It’s super easy to think of this as the product of a “big publisher” based on a few data points:

  • Monte Cook is unquestionably one of the rock stars of the RPG industry. Long list of published credits followed by arguably being the godfather of the d20 PDF boom, with numerous well received titles under his belt since he went independent.
  • The kickstarter raised over half a million dollars! That’s real money!
  • He works (primarily) in the d20 space, in a way that has him marked as a mainstream (rather than indie) designer.
  • He has a fandom. This may seem like an extension of the rockstar thing, but it’s a step removed from that. There is a sense that Cook has a pre-enthusaistic audience willing to shell out for his work , and in turn his work primarily serves them.

So, by that thinking, Cook is a big publisher (whatever that means) and should be held to a higher standard. He is, after all, The Man.

Except those things don’t really hold up well under any kind of scrutiny.

First and foremost, given the pennies to be made in this industry, the very idea of a Rock Star is kind of preposterous. I’m sure (or at least I hope) that Cook does ok, but if he ends up seeing big dollars, they’re going to be on the video game side of things (and I totally wish him luck in that).

Second, kickstarter dollars don’t go quite as far as one might hope. There are diminishing costs to publishing, but they don’t drop off so quickly that there’s some point where you are magically raking in money. And since Cook kept adding to the rewards (as we did with Fate) he sacrificed profit to make a better product for fans. Put another way, I don’t have visibility into his finances, but I do know how much things cost us, and based on that, I’m pretty confident he’s not retiring to Aruba any time soon.

Third, Numenera is not a d20 product. It’s outside of that zone of comfort and expertise, and that’s admirable. So even if there was some genuine d20-can’t-be-indie stigma, it’s not really relevant.

Last, while there may be other concerns surrounding anyone’s fanbase (like what happens when you criticize their game, natch) those are not things to hold against them. We all have “fanbases” of one stripe or another, and the fact that Cook has engaged his so successfully that I keep accidentally trying to call him “Monte” as if I knew him is something to be applauded, not condemned.

All of which is to say that while yes, Cook had some advantages in launching this, they don’t diminish the product and – more importantly – they don’t change that he’s one more independent publisher trying to make something, and that’s the criteria the work should be judged by.

  1. One thing I won’t touch in this is that by all reports, Cook is a really nice guy. I have only met him once, and that was in a fanboy capacity, so I can’t really speak to it. However, I have no reason to think otherwise, and I totally accept that he’s a cool dude. But that’s an aside.  ↩

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