Numenera Tech and Toys

I had, I admit, expected to kind of breeze past the the technology chapter of Numenera with little comment. It is, after all, effectively just the magic items of the setting, and while that’s interesting, it’s not usually informative.

I was wrong, at least to some extent. Someone (S. John Ross maybe) once wrote a great piece on how – if done right – all the crunchy bits are also worldbuilding. The tech chapter does not go quite that far, but it brushes up against it, enough so that i was engaged, if disappointed.

Specifically, the opener of the chapter talks about the role of technology in the world, and this is where I got excited. I mentioned before that the setting feels like it has no progress of its own, being based entirely around scavenging past wonders, but the tech chapter suggested that might not be the case, and that people are still creating Numenera, and that prospect intrigued me.

The payout was not quite what I hoped. There was a practical breakdown of the categories of tech from a gaming perspective (cyphers, artifacts, oddities and discoveries) as well as from an in-setting perspective (basically scavenged, cobbled together, artfully rebuilt or reincorporated, or actually built from scratch). The last category, fashioned, was the one I was most interested in, but it ended up feeling just like more scavenging – that sometimes an old method of creation might be recreated without actually changing anything.

Sidebar here: This is a complaint, not a criticism, and it’s important to distinguish those. This made me unhappy and was different than what I wanted, but it is not a failure on the designers part to construct things this way. it is to be taken as informative (of my tastes and how those are served or not served) for purposes of comparison, not as an assessment of the quality of the work.

Anyway, what follows is a run through of the categories. Cyphers (basically, one use devices) are the most common and important type of numenera, so they get the biggest focus. There’s a nice and clear acknowledgment that the reasons for limiting the number of cyphers a character can carry is basically a game one with some setting justification tapped on. Admirably, the reasoning behind this is not about “balance” but rather based on the assumption that it’s more fun to use cyphers than to hoard them. I can’t argue with that, but if you want to, there’s a nice random table of things that can go wrong if you do hoard cyphers, and that’s always fun.

And it’s good, because cyphers are kind of shamelessly game-y. They take a variety of forms (potions, pills, gadgets, clothing) which, means you are functionally getting potions without the limits imposed by the potion form. There are almost 100 cyphers, and they do the sort of things you’d expect. Blow up. Heal. Boost speed. Stuff like that. They’re fun, and even more varied because (like everything) they also have levels, so you don’t need a range of different potions for a given effect (like classic healing potions). There’s an exception to this for poisons, but they’re varied enough that it makes sense.

Structurally speaking, just as cyphers correspond to potions, artifacts correspond to more normal magic items. As with cyphers, there aren’t a lot of surprises here – the artifacts are clever and diverse, but they’re a baseline array, so there’s only so much diversity to be expected. Interestingly, most artifacts have a “depletion” score[1], a chance that after you use it, it runs out of juice. There are a few one off ways you might squeeze a little bit of use out of it, but really, that it.

This is an interesting decision. It’s not going to make players happy (we like our toys) and it introduces an extra bit of unnecessary complexity into play. Given that, it seems like a bad call, so why do it?

The answer is, I think, repeated throughout the text, and is called out explicitly in the crafting chapter in a highlighted passage: “The core of gameplay in Numenera is to discover new things or old things that are new again.” That is, the reason that there is so much effort put into making gear impermanent is to drive home a core ethos of play where the rewards are not the treasures (artifacts and cyphers), rather, the treasures are a reason to continue to explore and discover (because that is how they’re replenished).

Only play will tell if this is a good idea, but I think it’s clear that it’s a very deliberate idea, which is a good sign. It will be difficulty to address the sense that it is perhaps a bit punishing, but that sentiment is based on an entirely different approach to play than Numenera looks to be encouraging.

Anyway, the last section is Oddities and Discoveries. It’s ok, but it’s a little bit of a letdown – after all that stuff I just said about deliberately driving play towards discovery, I would have expected this section to be the biggest one, but it’s 80% one giant table of random oddities.

There’s a bit more in a final section on creating new Numenera,and it’s solid. Good game balance thoughts for artifacts and cyphers, and some ballpark guidelines for Oddities and Discoveries.

Ultimately, I think discoveries get short shrift in this chapter, and it’s another thing I’m hoping the GMing chapter picks up. If you accept the premise that Numenera is really a game about exploration and discovery, then it’s self evident that discoveries are a really big deal, and I hope the game gives me some help in making that so.

Weirdly, this ties back to the issue of technological development in some ways because it speaks to an essential question about the nature of the world – is it essentially static or dynamic? Technological development is one way that a dynamic world might change, but so are profound discoveries. It is entirely possible for discoveries to have a large impact on the setting.

But it’s equally possible for them to be TV episode style discoveries – something big and flashy which reveals something to the charters on hand, then vanishes or otherwise becomes irrelevant.

Numenera makes no promise that it’s a game about changing the world – it’s a game about discovering the world, and what I’ve seen so far is leading me to suspect that discoveries are more in the TV vein than not. But I hold out hope.

Conveniently, the next section is the GM stuff, so hopefully many questions will be answered soon.

  1. The logic of what depletes and how quickly is not always evident. It seems roughly correlated to potency, but there is definitely a bit of “how much will this piss off the player?” thinking in it, which is why signature items or things that would be hard to adjudicate seem to not deplete.  ↩

4 thoughts on “Numenera Tech and Toys

  1. Bill

    I’m reminded of the TV Show SG-1 here. That was a show about going out and discovering what you could discover. What I found interesting about it was that by the later seasons you actually saw the fruits of those discoveries. Earth had starships of its own and access to a couple of zero point energy sources and actually used those to further their goals. It would be interesting to be able to replicate that in a game.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yes! That is absolutely the kind of change I’d love to see (and it was one of my favorite things about the series).

  2. walkerp

    This isn’t going to be very nuanced, and I am not deeply familiar with much of Monte Cook’s work between Ptolus and Numenera, so I could be way off. But I feel like his approach is often designer down, where it’s really up to the system and the designer’s behind it to provide content. This was ultimately what drove me away from third edition. The thing is that often he is a really good and creative designer so the stuff he has provided is really cool. I was really jazzed with the Numenera setting, but from the snippets I’ve seen and now your reviews, it really does sound like that tendency is still very much about players basically consuming what Numenera gives them.

    Is it too strong to say from your reading of the text that Monte may not be comfortable with groups taking his material and re-working it rules and setting wise for their table?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Hmm. I think it’s actually the next level up from that (in a good direction) – the setting is more style than substance, and in turn the game is more about a particular playstyle than delivering the setting. What it *is* about is delivering your particular GM’s vision of Numenera – it is a VERY GM-strong game, and while I think Cook tilts things towards the style he prefers (and the game will lean that way) the main avenue for that is super-robust GM authority. Now, I’m not saying it’s going so far as being all railroads and puppet shows, it’s definitely not, but it’s in the space that can lead there if left unconsidered.


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