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