Numenera Wrap Up

Well, ok, that was a hell of a trip (including this, it’s about 13k words). If anyone is really curious, the entirety of my run through Numenera can be found here:

At this point, I’m all ready to run a game and am mostly just waiting for my hard copy to arrive. I don’t think it will be too critical in play if I operate out of a PDF, but I definitely want a physical copy to pass around during chargen at the very least. So until then, I’m just going to chew on it and see what comes to mind. My final thoughts, in no particular order:

Setting Baseline

The choice to go SUPER far future is one that is full of subtle nuances which don’t become apparent until you start pondering other ways to run Numenera. The two big ones are that it pretty much removes any idea of divinity and it markedly curtails certain stylistic decision. The divinity thing is pretty straightforward – there’s a taste element to it[1], but it’s the single biggest thing that keeps this from feeling entirely like a D&D reskin – but the style limits are a bit more interesting.

To illustrate, let’s contrast this with the latest version of Gamma World. Content-wise, there is almost nothing that appears Numenera which would be out of place in Gamma World, but the reverse is not true. While Gamma World’s premise (that a whole much of realities just went “smoosh”) allows for virtually infinite diversity, it is still built upon the foundation of a recognizable world. The ability to draw upon familiar things pushed through a lens of change is something that makes that setting resonate. This is why things like Gamma World and planet of the Apes are not great touchpoints for Numenera.

But it goes farther than that. It’s not just a lack of immediately recognizable ideas (like McDonalds or The Statue of Libery) but even broadly recognizable ideas are kind of out of bounds. That means that some of the hyper-future touchpoints that people might think of, like Moorcock’s Hawkmoon or King’s Dark Tower aren’t really applicable.[2] Curiously, most of the fictional sources I would point to as useful for Numenera actually come out of video games. Make of that what you will.

Numenera: Schism

So, this is something I’m doing in my own game, and I heartily encourage anyone else looking to play to embrace it. It is core canon that the Ninth World is explicitly multidimensional, with connections and touchpoints to other worlds. So far as I’m concerned, every game of Numenera is in its own world, one of the infinite Ninth Worlds floating in the ether. They may well connect and touch (and sometimes multiple stories may be told in the same world, but that’s up to the GM).

This may seem like a strange declaration, but it’s a polite way to kill Elminster[3]. It is a declaration that you dig the game and it’s setting, and that the fact that you are making it your own is not a rejection of that core, just your own particular branch. So if, for example, you want some damn boats, your Numenera might have all the same parts with a larger, more active inner sea, and unknown lands out in the ocean. Because it’s a Ninth World, there’s no need to piss and moan over whether or not this “works” – you just do what you find cool.

Plus, it gets me airships if I want them.

Mechanical Bugbears

Yeah, by now it should be very clear that I’m uncomfortable with how XP is used and I’m skeptical of how the effort system will work in play. I’ll give both of these things some opportunity in play, but I’m pretty confident that they’ll demand some hacking. Effort is, I think, likely to just be a function of tweaking the economy a bit to improve the flow. XP, however, is going to be a total knife fight.

The One Awesome Thing

If I had to call out the single coolest thing in the game, it would probably be Foci. Not only are the mechanically fun, but they say HUGE AMOUNTs about a game. They are not just mechanics, they are setting design. If you want to do a custom game in your own setting, you will absolutely want to make distinctive Foci (as well as remove some). There’s some great overlap here with other setting technology (thinking of 13th Age’s Icons and the backgrounds from Neverwinter). And as a bonus, these are going to be a fantastic inroad for players to design new Foci.

Lost Opportunity

I genuinely wish the pages that were committed to Fasten (a small town) had gone to almost anything else. It’s not bad, but it’s dull. Worse, it’s dull in a space that’s surrounded by really interesting stuff – almost any of the surrounding ideas would have made a better (and by better I mean “more playable”) use of the space. I have similar feelings about Guran, but it’s got more playable hooks, so it’s a little more useful.

This may seem very picky, but it’s more of a testimony to the array of interesting stuff in the setting. To ignore them all in order to zoom in on a generic town feels like a wasted chance.

Bottom Line

  • I’m happy I backed it. It’s lovely, and was absolutely a value.
  • I do not recommend or un-reccommend it. I do not know you or your table, and it would be pure hubris for me to do so. I just hope I’ve given some information to help you make that decision yourself.
  • I look forward to running it.
  • It is not the second coming of gaming, but it’s neat.
  • How much it holds my interest beyond initial play is going to depend entirely upon my experience.
  • This is a charismatic game, not a doctrinal one. The rules are designed to give the GM and players greater creative leeway, not greater creative support. up tot you how that intersects with your tastes.
  • The terminology got less annoying with exposure, so that’s a plus, but it’s still a little wacky.

  1. This plus the single continent thing has lead to my shortest, most tongue in cheek review of Numenera: MONTE HATES GODS AND BOATS.  ↩
  2. The closest literary equivalent one might point to is The Dying Earth, and there is certainly some overlap in how far removed things are from anything known to mankind, but there is a huge tonal difference between Numenera and The Dying Earth, which make it tricky to apply directly (though Dying Earth makes a great past or future for Numenera, depending upon how you look at it)  ↩
  3. This gets its name from a tale told on the Sons of Kryos podcast, of a D&D game where the opening event is the murder of Elminster, the iconic NPC of the Forgotten Realms. This sort of action is a clear dramatic statement that the game is not going to be dictated by the official canon of the setting, and that the table owns the game.  ↩

11 thoughts on “Numenera Wrap Up

  1. Arashinomoui

    Thank you – I appreciate the long form dissection of the book. I’m almost tempted to use it as I delve into 13th Age for myself.

  2. MPopke

    Thanks for this incredibly (dare I say, ridiculously) detailed and thoughtful overview. A question about narrative touchpoints though. You mention that you can’t think of any fictional analogs to the setting. How does it compare to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series? That was the first thing I thought of when I first read the Numenera pitch. Distant future, technology as magic, forgotten history and weird obviously not natural beasts gone wild seems like a good fit. Not being a backer (kind of kicking myself), I haven’t gotten my copy of the book yet.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I shamefacedly admit I’ve never read New Sun, so I can’t really say. But Cook does explicitly call it out as an influence, so perhaps it’s a good touchpoint.

  3. tas Jones

    I wasn’t a backer of this product, but I did pick it up on Friday when I saw it at the store. Just started reading through it, and the conceptual similarities to FATE stood out right away. I am thinking that it would be a good system to play to transfer players form thinking D&D/Pathfinder paradigm , towards the FATE paradigm. FATE can seem to be just to “out there” for longtime D&D players to warp their heads around. One of my players who was intrigued flipping through my copy of FATE Core, told me that he wanted to play Numenera when he flip through it yesterday.

  4. Robert Calfee

    I followed this examination avidly. I was also ‘reading’ along (using TTS on my commute to soak up the rulebook). I’m a big New Sun fan, I also really like Monte Cook’s other work, and backed the KS.
    But the more I get into the game the less impressed I am with it. Perhaps I had hopes that were too high?

    The mechanics -seemed- simple enough, but I realized that they’d been explained on possibly the most complicated way that could have been found. The choice of terms served only to obfuscate.

    The setting seemed to be the most uneven, with details given where they were least needed. There were plenty of intriguing adventure hooks, though.

    What bothered me was the complete lack of history. Even if there was no way to verify what took place in the past; -something- did; it would have given the GM a foundation to build on and a way to explain all the oddity and weirdness. Instead everything but the last few years was just: ‘no one knows’ away-ed.

    Now I’m certainly a fan of the notion of a GM being able to come up with their own setting details. Every Eberron GM can come up with their own explanation of the Mourning, for example. But there’s concrete history of that world back for thousands of years, and that helps make every Eberron -an- Eberron.

    But the hand-waving in the Ninth World is so extensive it leads to RSI. It’s too bad too, because I would have liked to hear Mr. Cooks explanations for the Weirds and Oddities he described. I kinda wanted to know, you know? What made the Ninth World into the Ninth World? “No one knoooooows…”

    The ‘science’ was only the first casualty. The tables of Cyphers and mutations puts me in mind of Metamorphosis Alpha, but not in a good way. And the Blankity blank that does blank was cool right up until I got to the first Focus: Bears a Halo of Fire. And I knew this wasn’t something that made you unique but rather your character’s superpower. And it made me wonder: is this just for PCs? It’s not. In fact, there’s really nothing in the book that makes the PCs special. Oh they are supposed to be, I guess. And they are tougher to kill, and they have ‘Tiers’ instead of ‘Levels’.

    Enough for now

    1. Robert Calfee

      So the video of the release at Gencon of the Numenera game addressed some of the questions I’d posed. Not answered, but addressed.

      The notion that they ‘didn’t want’ to answer these questions about the weird or strange so that each Numenera world would be the GM’s own is admirable … to a point. To compare with Eberron, having a central, or even a few dozen mysteries which are for the GM to come up with their own reason/solution/answer is good. Though I don’t know a single GM who won’t assert that privilege on their own. Encouraging that is good.

      But: if there is absolutely no example of how these mysteries could be answered, then what you’ve done is in effect given the GM a whole lot of homework to do before they can run a logical and cohesive game. Maybe these are going to be answered in the novels or supplemental materials. I’m not going to find out.

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  7. Luke Green

    Late to the party here but Knights of the Night actual play podcast did a one shot adventure in this setting and are currently in wrap up and review.

    Their current impression is that if they run the setting again there has to be some kind of hack in place. They’ve talked about using either Fate or Storyteller systems. They ended up spending most of their XP on rerolls, most of which still failed, because they were rolling terrible on the dice. As it stands at the very least they’d replace the d20 with “anything else” with 2d10 being suggested.

    I would also note that according to the difficulty chart I think an average difficulty task, something done daily by the average worker, has a difficulty of about 3. Meaning it needs a 9.

    For the untrained laborer, this is a 4 out of 10 failure rate.

    For the trained professional, this is a 1 in four failure rate.

    For the specialist, this is a 1 in 10 failure rate.

    I can’t speak much to the untrained person because I don’t know for certain the standards of an average worker in Numenera, but 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 feel like very high failure rates for people who are supposed to be skilled and/or top level in their fields attempting an average sort of task.

    Sure they can spend effort but on every such action?

    I based my final review on Numenera on the actual play since most of my crop of players haven’t wanted to touch the system with a ten foot pole. The XP thing being one such reason. Most were impressed by the setting. (though one person immediately named an anime that uses the same setting concept and I myself have a similar world setting from about 10 years back.)

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