Numenera Setting Stuff

So, this is going to be a very weird and very nerdy objection to something which, at first glance, Numenera does very well, and that is the Map.

Now, the poster map is lovely, no question at all, and it’s technically very well done, with all levels of detail available, which makes it a rich, amazing dataset. Unfortunately, that richness leads to an easy trap – the individual detail maps are just zooms in on the larger map.

This may not seem like it would create a problem – it’s all the same data after all – but it actually means that there’s more information than is contextually helpful on any given map. Which is to say, yes, there are times when you want less information on a map.

This may seem counterintuitive, but bear in mind that a map is just one more piece of design, and as with all design, it should serve a purpose. Using a one-size-fits-all solution may be technically satisfying, but it creates a less useful experience.

Writ large, my issue with maps is probably a fair metaphor for my reaction to the setting as a whole. There’s lots of good, gorgeous stuff there, but the level of zoom is occasionally erratic or out of sync with the content. In parts it will go on for 4 pages about a forgettable locale, then in other parts it will deliver half a dozen great idea seeds in the span of half a page.

The setting material starts out a little meh, as it goes through The Steadfast, the nominally “Civilized” area which nominally makes for the core of play. There are 9 kingdom writeups, and they’re not bad, but they also don’t deliver much that you haven’t seen before[1]. Mostly, they made me miss Eberrron.

Things get more interesting as you get out into “The Beyond”, those spaces beyond the boundaries of the Steadfast. This is where the weird stuff is, and some of it’s really awesome. It is, however, a little jarring to read, as the voice of the text changes DRASTICALLY at times. So much so that I initially assumed that there were a lot of different writers for this section whose work had gotten cobbled together (there were not).

As with the maps, this is kind of a technical point. The individual sections are generally fine (though they sometimes sacrifice being playable in favor of being evocative) but it makes for a very jarring read. It ends up being less of a detriment than it might because the whole section is very diverse, but it kind of hurts all the same.

So here’s where I come clean – I had high expectations of the setting, and the fact that it does not deliver those does not make it bad, but it does make me sad. Were I to sum it up, I would say that any time there was a choice to take the premise of the setting (which is wonderful) in one of several directions, the choice was always to take it in the direction which conforms to default D&D assumptions.

One large way this manifests is that there is very little native science and technology. There’s lots of using old tech/magic to do things, or people working to rebuild old tech, but very little emphasis on people making things. From the perspective of adventures, this is probably a very fine point, but from the perspective of worldbuilding, it says a lot[2].

All of this would be well and good save for one genuinely maddening frustration. At numerous points, the text makes a point of emphasizing that we’re now back to one giant supercontinent and the rest of the world is largely empty ocean, even though no one actually knows this for sure in setting.

While I’m sure this came from one of the science books about the future of the world, I am frustrated by the decision. If you are excited about the idea of Numenera’s setting but want to go carve out your own corner of it. then you have to actively discard this bit of setting truth. The fact that it was not left as an unknown and is explicitly called out (multiple times) feels like an admonition against making the setting your own. Yes, of course, it’s an admonition that anyone can ignore, but it leaves me wondering why it’s there at all.

This one sticks in my craw because I fully admit that I’d rather raid the setting for parts than use it as written. The setting is good enough that I don’t want to just discard it and start from whole cloth, but I absolutely need to bend it some for my own table.[3]

Bottom line, the setting is good, but not quite the transcendent experience I was hoping for. It is possible that my expectations were too high, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. Where it’s weakest, it’s doing setting details by the numbers. Where it’s strongest, it’s introducing ideas that could be real play drivers.

There’s a good chance I’m not the audience for this, as I suspect the audience is people just stepping out of the D&D pool. Differences I see as trivial may seem very broad from that perspective, and I have no desire to belittle that. But I do admit to the selfish desire that it was a little bit more for me, as it were.

The Good

  • Beautiful Map
  • Very few Elminsters
  • Great range of environments and ideas
  • Good attempts to seed each location with hooks.
  • NPC shorthand reveals the strong simplicity of the system

The Bad

  • Pangea
  • Uneven voice
  • One size fits all map
  • Flight is nonexistent except when its not
  • Given that there’s a crusade against them in progress, it feels like the Gains got short shrift

The Mixed

  • Quality of plot seeds ranges from inspired to “Hey, that castle over there is mysterious. MYSTERIOUS!”
  • The Steadfast is not bad, and with a little polish could probably pop, but a lot of the political tensions that drive the region feel tacked on because reasons
  • The mechanical implementation of the organizations (giving you an extra thing to spend XP on) is clever, but the organizations themselves don’t exactly jump off the page.

  1. So, I took that as a strike against, but if you accept the premise that Numemera is designed to be someone’s baby steps away from D&D, then it makes a lot of sense for the “core” of the setting to be very familiar-feeling to D&D players.  ↩

  2. And, weirdly, is kind of at odds with one of the core philosophical bits of going sci-fi: No Gods. Removing gods from the table makes a bold statement about making our own way in the world, but then kind of leaves it at that.  ↩

  3. Which will probably include importing elements from Dark Space, natch.  ↩

13 thoughts on “Numenera Setting Stuff

  1. Lugh

    Given the comment of “few Elminsters” I have to ask: Does it follow the principle of building a setting with faces? Does each organization have a key NPC who is interesting and a driver of plot? I’m really trying to go back and redesign my settings with this principle in mind, and I’m curious to see if it used well elsewhere?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It follows it unevenly – in some places the personalities pop, in others they are just place holding names.

  2. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    I would have preferred a middle sea sort of continent to a Pangaea, so you can get some sail adventure action going. (c.f. the map of 13th Age).

    I do agree that not having “more goodies” on the detail maps IS a missed opportunity. Fractal complexity is sort of a given in differing scales of maps in the real world, after all.

  3. David

    Are you aware that this is only a fraction of the continent, the rest coming int he World Guidebook coming next year?

    In Pathfinder terms, this, in the Corebook, is like the Inner Sea area.

  4. Bryant

    So much so that I initially assumed that there were a lot of different writers for this section whose work had gotten cobbled together (there were not).

    I think there were two different writers for this section (Monte Cook and Shanna Germain), based on Shanna’s blog in which she quotes setting bits she wrote. Shanna was also the editor for the book as a whole. I think that it was probably a bad idea to have Shanna doing double duty as editor and writer, since the tonal differences between her work and Monte’s work are so noticeable.

    On the whole I prefer her tone, FWIW, particularly for this kind of science fantasy. Which is not to say I don’t like Monte’s writing.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah, I caught a snippet of a podcasts which also suggested that the drastically different voices in the Beyond was intentional, so I guess it was working as intended. They did strongly assert that it’s not as obvious as it seems which bits are Shanna and which are Monte, and I’ll take them at their word for that.

      That said, I’ll give props – they apparently brought in another editor explicitly so Shanna was not editing her own stuff, and it was the right thing to do. I admit I was inclined to view the tonal shifts as an editing problem for that same reasons you observe, but “intentional” works as an explanation too. 🙂

  5. Nat

    Huh. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but I backed it for the setting, expecting to be disappointed by the rules. I hope my appraisal ends up more positive than yours.

    Also, shouldn’t “only a few Elminsters” by in the negative column? Isn’t any number greater than zero too many for an rpg?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I’m ok with a small number of them provided they’re easy to ignore or are framed as villains, so Numenera does ok by that metric.

  6. Christopher West

    Thanks for the thoughtful review, Rob!

    It’s true that the region maps were created by zooming in on sections of the master world map that was designed at poster size, but I would add that each one was given individual attention in making sure it clearly presented the information highlighted in that region. Map tags were rearranged or removed, as needed, to make each region map fit comfortably in its own space.

    As for the absence of additional details in the region-specific maps: it was very important to Monte and his team that the maps in the book focus on the sites that were detailed in the text, and that the maps preserve as much of the mystery of the setting as possible. They wanted to make sure that if you pick a location name on the map and search the text for more information on that location, you will easily find a detailed entry. At the same time, they wanted to leave plenty of mysteries in the text that can’t be spoiled by a casual perusal of the maps in the book.

    For example, when you find a passing mention to a minor town or place of mystery in the text, you as a GM have a lot of flexibility in placing that thing in the world without worrying that a player with their own copy of the core book will try to contradict you.

    That said, the Numenera poster maps I recently kickstarted (which will be available in retail channels later this year) offer more of a “GM’s map” approach and do pinpoint a lot of incidental places that are left purposefully undisclosed by the maps in the core book. 🙂

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      That makes a ton of sense, and I hope I conveyed that the map is absolutely gorgeous. Really, I fully admit that a lot of my concerns are full on cartography nerd stuff, better addressed over beverage. 🙂

  7. Matthew Bock

    In the book he clearly states that you don’t have to follow his world exactly. Modifying the map for your campaign is the first step in creating a good creative campaign.

    I intend to put stuff in the western ocean. As it is stated in the book that it is full of islands and undiscovered. Also in context, with a giant super continent everything else would look like an island.

    Just remember what first explorers thought of North America when they first discovered it. The game is about discovery.


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