Review – Numenera

Numenera-Corebook-Cover-2013-06-18One of the most successful tabletop RPG Kickstarter projects so far was Monte Cook’s Numenera (I think it was the most successful at the time, but is now third behind Exalted 3E and Call of Cthulhu 7E), which had its official launch at GenCon 2013. I was a Kickstarter backer, so my copy got delivered to my doorstep. Hooray for not having to move to get stuff! The Numenera core book is a 400+ page, full-color hardcover that retails for $60.

Note: This is a review of the book, not the system. Since this is a core book, that necessarily entails looking at mechanics, and I’ll say if there’s anything obviously problematic or cool, but (for obvious reasons) this isn’t going to include something like a subtle analysis of the balancing of the characters and combat options based on months of play experience with the final rules.

The Concept

The world of Numenera is fantasy with a twist, exemplified by the Arthur C. Clarke quote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The world of Numenera is the Ninth World, a ninth civilization built atop the bones of eight prior hypertech civilizations, who installed great machines underground, left a web of satellites surrounding the planet, and left numerous biological and technological imprints on the surface.

WomanCropAll of these remnants are known to the residents of the Ninth World as the numenera – magic-like, but known to be from prior civilizations. Numenera range from the minor and mundane to the epic and transformative. Plastic construction materials, anti-gravity belts, storms that alter the DNA of biological entities they sweep across, safety matches, cybernetics, electricity, teleportation – all are examples of numenera.

These numenera are woven together with the RPG setting to produce variations on traditional fantasy items. For example, there’s still good old weapons and armor, but a character might wield a stronglass rapier while wearing an organic stone jerkin. “Magic” items fall into three categories – artifacts (permanent objects with a clear use, such as a belt that projects a force shield), cyphers (one-shot items such as healing packs and grenades), and oddities (a bit of old tech with no apparent practical function, such as an electronic picture frame that displays a variety of images).

Wave_1_Half_RiderPortrait_RoughThe world also falls into a twist on a traditional fantasy setting. The central civilized part of the setting is a collection of kingdoms known as The Steadfast. Also wielding great influence are the Aeon Priests of the Order of Truth, which is led by the Amber Pope. Outside of The Steadfast is an extensive area of wilds known as the Beyond – isolated bits of civilization interspersed among truly wild areas. However, things that would be anachronisms in a traditional fantasy setting are normal and appropriate in the Ninth World – democracy, raincoats, gay marriage and ink pens, for example. The abandoned dungeon from 50 years ago is replaced with the abandoned massive construct from 50 million years ago. Although the world seems to contain terrain of all types, we most frequently see characters depicted in bleak, barren, or sparse landscapes such as deserts or fields of ice.

Art, Editing, Writing, Etc.

The writing is fantastic – Monte Cook really knocked it out of the part on this one. Lots of evocative text without wandering into purple prose. Editing was very good as well – I only noticed one typo on my readthrough (I’m not saying that’s the only one, but I usually notice more, even on a slimmer tome than this one).

Layout wasn’t anything spectacular, but it didn’t cause any problems. Probably the best layout aspect was the use of the sidebars as references. You’re reading about a country and it mentions a particular creature? The sidebar is going to give you the citation to where that creature’s bestiary entry is. There are similar links from creatures to locations, and other links to applicable bits of the rule. Very handy.

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The art was decent and very functional. The art itself wasn’t amazing (no vast troves of setting art to draw on like in Edge of the Empire or Legend of the Five Rings 4E), but it’s generally tied to the text. So instead of getting some random piece of really great art, you’re getting a piece of decent art that actually depicts what it was that this bit of text was talking about. The map works well (at least the various iterations of it I can see – I’m the sort of knob who is unwilling to “ruin” his book by taking out the poster-sized map in the back).

 Basic Mechanics

duelIt’s a d20 roll! The GM sets a difficulty, from one (routine) to Impossible (30 – normal human would not be capable of this, but it does not break the laws of physics). The target number for the check is three times the difficulty – so, obviously, you’re going to need some modifiers in order to be able to do those impossible things (maybe that’s why they call them impossible?).

Task difficulty can be modified in three basic ways (note that the modifiers are applied to the difficulty before it is tripled to come up with the target number; I don’t think the target number is ever directly modified, although some items do apply bonuses directly to rolls): skills, assets and effort. If a character is trained in an applicable skill, the difficulty is reduced by 1. If she’s specialized, it’s reduced by 2. Assets is basically a catch-all term for anything else that helps you out – a buddy giving an assist, a relevant piece of equipment, etc. Assets can never reduce difficulty by more than 2 (note that if bonuses to a roll add up to +3, this counts as an asset and just reduces the difficulty). Effort requires spending points from the Pool associated with the relevant characteristic (more on that in a minute). The maximum levels of difficulty reduction is equal to the character’s level, or Tier.

If you reduce the difficulty of a task to zero, you do not have to roll. So a well-trained and well-equipped character, or one willing to burn a lot of effort (which you can only do at higher levels), can automatically succeed on even demanding tasks.

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In combat, each enemy has a level, and this level is the default difficulty of the attack and defense rolls (the GM almost never rolls dice – all rolls are made by players). Indeed, that one number provides the default difficulty for any sort of task at all against that character/creature, whether it’s a fight or talking or sneaking or whatever. Damage is not random, so you don’t need the usual D&D assortment of dice (although you will sometimes need a d6 and d%).

Numenera has its own version of critical hits and failures. Rolling a natural 19 (if you succeed at the task) produces a minor extra benefit, while rolling a natural 20 (if you succeed) produces a bigger extra effect. Rolling a natural 1 means you get a “complication” (more on those later).

BlackMonolith31Two other critical concepts are GM intrusion and the role of cyphers. GM intrusion lets the GM introduce some sort of unexpected complication into the story. GM intrusion is also used instead of a random roll to determine whether something happens that’s out of control of the players – for example, whether some guards a few rooms down hear a fight. When the GM intrudes, he gives 2XP to the affected player, who must then immediately give one of those XP to another player (more rarely, the GM might just hand each PC 1XP). The affected player has the option to refuse the intrusion by declining the XP offer, and paying 1XP.

Cyphers (the one-shot magic items) are intended to provide a constant source of new and different things to the game. They’re one-shots, they’re intended to show up frequently, and the PCs can only carry a couple each. This incentivizes the players to use them pretty quickly – for the most part, I think cyphers are not intended to hang around for more than a session or two.

Characters (~55 pages)

Stats

Characters in Numenera have three stats (each of which has an associated pool and edge), and a Descriptor, Type and Focus (the famous “A ______ _______ who _______”).

The three stats are Might, Speed and Intellect. Might encapsulates both raw strength and health/constitution, Speed includes raw speed but also dexterity, and Intellect also incorporates social graces. Each stat has a value called Pool and Edge (the starting values for these are defined by your Type). Pool is what you’d normally think of as the value of the stat – how Mighty you are, how Speedy you are, whatever. Points from the starting Pool can be lost to attacks, can be used as Effort to decrease difficulty, or can be used to fuel some abilities. The Edge value for a stat reduces how much you have to spend out of the Pool. So if an ability required you to spend three Intellect, and you had an Intellect Edge of 1, then the final cost would only be 2. The Edge value reduces Effort cost as well, but it applies to the total effort spent, not each level of difficulty reduction applied.

Type

This is the basic character class (or, as the rulebook likes to remind us, the noun in the “adjective noun who verbs” line). The three Types are, essentially, Fighters, Wizards, and slightly magical Rogues. Type also determines basic starting equipment, although what choices you want to make will be influenced by your Descriptor and Focus, which may had out some equipment and will strongly affect how the character plays.

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The Glaive is comparable to a Fighter – above-average Might, average Speed, low Intellect (with no Edge), can use any weapon and can make better use of armor (or can make better use of Speed-based defense if not wearing armor), and starts with limited skills, all physical. The first-Tier Glaive also gets to choose to fighting moves, such as inflicting extra damage or dazing combat opponents. As the Glaive levels up, she can use a few more cyphers, gets trained in various sorts of attacks, and gets to choose a new fighting move at each level (she can also swap around the lower-Tier fighting moves for better combos or to avoid having duplicative moves).

The Nano is comparable to a Wizard – high Intellect (the only stat with Edge), below-average in the other stats, can carry more cyphers at one time than other characters, can only use light weapons, and trained in numenera. The first-Tier Nano also chooses two esoteries (spells, basically), such as “magical” attacks or detection. As the Nano levels up, he gets to carry more cyphers and learns more esoteries (like the Glaive, the Nano also gets to swap around his lower-level choices).

The Jack is comparable to the Rogue, but with a couple of spells (or maybe that’s a Bard, but without the lute?) – average stats (your choice which one gets an Edge), can use light and medium weapons, gets trained in one non-combat skill of choice, and has a second “flex skill” that lets you pick a new non-combat skill each day to be trained in. The Jack gets two tricks of the trade at first Tier, which are a mix of minor esoteries and Glaive-like abilities (including the option to have some always-on effects like better armor use). At higher-levels the Jack becomes trained (or specialized) in more skills, and learns more tricks of the trade.

It is, I think, important to remember that the character Type says nothing about how the character comes about his abilities. A Glaive might be highly-trained, genetically engineered, or a cyborg. A Nano might have esoteric knowledge, psionic powers or (again) be a cyborg. Jacks can be, well, whatever you want.

Descriptor

A character’s Descriptor is something of a background (the “adjective”). Descriptors include things like Charming, Learned, Rugged, Strong, and Swift. Descriptors are not limited by character Type, although there are obviously “better” synergies for some combinations.

Each Descriptor is a collection of stat modifications, skill training, additional equipment, abilities and inabilities. As you might guess from that last one, some Descriptors are not all upside. As an example, the Charming Descriptor gives a bonus to Intellect, trained at positive social interactions or abilities that influence others and start with extra cash – but also increases the difficulty of lore tasks or tasks requiring mental fortitude.

The full list of Descriptors is Charming, Clever, Graceful, Intelligent, Learned, Mystical/Mechanical, Rugged, Stealthy, Strong, Strong-Willed, Swift and Tough.

Focus

The Focus is, to me, the most distinctive part of the three basic character aspects. Although phrasing it as a “verb” is a kind of gimmicky (let’s face it, “Carries a Quiver” is really just a fancy way of saying “Archer”), the underlying mechanic is distinctive in that it gives you a second, more specialized set of characteristics that are (like your Type) level-dependent. While Descriptors are mundane, Foci are often more exotic – again, like your Type, any given Focus might be the result of mutation, cybernetics, or intensive training. Unlike Descriptors, there are some Focus/Type combinations that do not work (for example, Wields Power With Precision cannot be taken by a Glaive).

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Each Focus also includes at least one connection to another PC, generally with a mechanical effect. For example, if you Carry a Quiver, then you choose one other PC who gave you your bow and a second PC to be the poor fellow you accidentally shoot whenever the dice say you accidentally shot another PC.

The Foci are Bears a Halo of Flame (fire magic), Carries a Quiver (good with bows), Commands Mental Powers, Controls Beasts, Controls Gravity, Crafts Illusions, Crafts Unique Objects, Employs Magnetism, Entertains, Exists Partially Out of Phase, Explores Dark Places (ok, now you’re really a Rogue), Fights With Panache, Focuses Mind Over Matter, Fuses Flesh and Steel, Howls at the Moon (yup, werewolf), Hunts With Great Skill, Leads (helps with giving orders and gets you followers), Lives In The Wilderness, Masters Defense, Masters Weaponry, Murders (sneak attacks, extra damage, and poison), Rages (barbarian), Rides the Lightning (electrical magic), Talks To Machines, Wears a Sheen of Ice (ice magic), Wields Power With Precision (better with esoteries), Wields Two Weapons at Once, Works Miracles (healing) and Works the Back Alleys (thief).

Leveling Up

Landscape031Of course, characters are not static, so how is it that they improve? XP can be spent on a variety of things in the course of the game, but one of them is character advancement. In order to go up from tier to tier, the character must improve the character in a variety of ways. There are four “steps” to gaining a tier (they cost 4XP), and the character must do all four (in any order) in order to gain a tier: assign 4 new points to stat pools, increase an Edge by 1, increasing Effort by 1, and becoming trained/specialized in a skill. Each tier the player can replace one of these steps with one of several other options: an additional selection from the Type ability list, better recovery rolls, or less hassle wearing armor. These things cannot be bought randomly, but only as character advancement steps – so not only do you have to spread the XP around in order to level up, but you cannot simply load up on one aspect of the character (e.g., just dumping tons of XP into an Edge).

Characters can also spend XP on more limited options that do not contribute to character advancement. 1XP lets you reroll a die (keep the better result). 2XP gets a character a limited version of a skill – for example, picking locks in this ruin rather than picking locks generally. 3XP gets a long-term story benefit such as a residence or a contact, or a different kind of mini-skill – a +1 “familiarity” bonus in a skill (so, if you really want to be better at a skill, I guess you could sink 9XP into sort of getting trained in an extra skill).

Rules (~30 pages)

The basics of this are covered above, but this is the place in the book where you find the details (not that it’s a particularly detail-oriented sort of system). In addition to the basic roll, this covers travel, crafting, experience, check complications and, of course, combat. During combat, each character gets to take one action per turn.

Landscape07Numenera is not a tactical miniatures game, and so there is no precise positioning. Distances (and short-term speeds) are instead classified as immediate, short, and long (which ends at 500 feet). Hitting something with a sword requires an immediate action. A bow shoots at long range. You can move an immediate distance as part of another action, can automatically move a short distance as an action, and can move a long distance as an action but a roll is required.

Other combat actions beyond “attack” and “move” include activating abilities, waiting, defending, and … well, that’s it for the standard defined ones. Mostly non-combat actions that have rules include climbing, guarding, healing, jumping, remembering, spot/listen, interaction, moving heavy objects, pretending you’re a Thief (aka, disabling devices and picking locks), riding, sneaking, and swimming. None of these are particularly long.

Damage is usually applied to a PC’s Might Pool, then Speed if that’s empty, and then Intellect (NPC’s just have a Health stat). Some sorts of damage specify otherwise (a psionic attack, for example, might hit the Intellect Pool). For each Pool that empties, the PC moves one step on the damage track. Moving three steps on the damage track = you’re dead (so if all three Pools empty, you’re a goner). Plus actions get harder when you’re damaged. Some scary critters can directly move you on the damage track, regardless of overall Pool status. Pools are refilled by recovery rolls, which you get after resting (a long night’s rest will produce four such rolls) – this is one of those times you need that pesky d6. Steps on the damage track recover automatically as the Pools replenish.

The rules cover some standard combat modifiers as well – cover, position, range, light, water, moving and fighting at the same time, and gravity (OK, maybe that isn’t as common).

How do you get XP? GM intrusions, and discovering new things. As Cook notes, the players will do what you give them XP for, and Numenera is about discovery things, not about killing monsters, so that’s what you get XP for.

Optional Rules (a different ~15 pages)

If it floats your boat, Numenera includes optional rules for trading damage in for an effect (e.g., give up two points of damage to hit a specific body part), permanent/long-term/detailed damage (e.g., getting a broken arm), distinctions between different kinds of weapons, using tactical play, customizing Descriptors, bonus XP for coming up with character drawbacks, requiring players to spend XP gained during a session only for non-advancement benefits (you’d probably have to apply this one to me, or else I’d just hoard everything for long-term benefits and character advancement), playing as visitants (aliens – not all of the nonhumans who constituted the prior eight worlds have left), and being a mutant.

Setting/Gazetteer (~100 pages).

salachia-e1359102903764As you can see, Numenera dedicates a hefty chunk of text to laying out the Ninth World. After a few pages of general info, the book goes through The Steadfast, The Beyond, “Beyond the Beyond” (basically the city-state of Auger-Kala and the University of Doors), and some organizations. You’ll get some more background (the world of the Ninth World is Earth, somebody blew up Mercury at some point, some bullet points on the nature of some of the prior civilizations).

Every gazetteer entry provides some background on that part of the world, as well as sub-entries on notable locations, people, or things (some parts of the world get a lot of sub-parts, and some get just one), some “hearsay” on local events you might want the PCs to get involved in, and a few isolated “weird” things you might want the PCs to run into. The locations covered include the nine kingdoms of the Steadfast and pretty much everything that’s marked on the book’s map.

Some of the locations/people/places/things that might catch your eye while reading through this section of the book include a queen who has lived in a hermetically sealed environment for 253 years, a city built entirely on bridges and piers, an automaton police force, a horse, a deep chasm in the earth that may or may not be a scar left over from a visitant assault during a prior age, a half-buried spherical palace that can rotate and has its own internal gravity control systems, an island of pirates who engage in animalistic self-modification, a lake full of invisible water, Le Temple de Frogue and the other four wonders of the Caecelian Jungle, a space elevator, Our Order of the Lady of the Salt Way, an underwater city where entry is controlled by a sentient mollusk, and a thousand-foot spire of living flesh. Oh, and lots and lots and lots of mysteriously floating monoliths, obelisks, islands, discs, crystals and so forth. Seriously, Monte Cook likes him some floating hunks of rock.

Bestiary/NPCs (~50 pages)

19-SingleCreatureThis section covers ~45 creatures and half a dozen NPCs. The main thing to remember, especially for NPCs, is that the basic thing that defines an opponent is its level. Any interaction with that thing that requires a roll is going to default to that as the difficulty for the task. People and creatures other than PCs simply do not function at all like PCs do.

The bestiary includes creatures of difficulty levels 1-10. Each entry includes a general description, motives (some just want to eat you, some are intelligent, some are both), health value, damage caused, armor (if any), movement, modifications (places where the difficulty is higher or lower than the creature’s level – is the critter sneaky, hard to hit, charismatic, etc.), advice on using the creature in combat, how the creature will interact with PCs (again, this may be “try to eat them” or may be more complex), general use in a game (e.g., this monster makes for a good ambush), loot that may be found and (sometimes) suggestions for GM intrusions. NPCs are pretty much the same.

Creatures include run the gamut from level 1 nuisances that the PCs can knock off by the dozen to low-level abhumans to scary T. Rex lookalikes with built-in Google Glass to the world-beating Dread Destroyer (level 10, has cruise missiles). Now seems like a good time to emphasize how drastically the challenge presented by an opponent varies with difficulty level. A level 2 creature means that even if they expend no resources whatsoever and are untrained in combat, starting characters will hit it 75% of the time and it will miss them 75% of the time. Push that up to level 5, and now the characters hit only 30% of the time and they get hit 70% of the time.

Equipment (~45 pages)

Normal Gear

20_Numera_Automaton_Final_GuidoKuip-e1359657110514There are really only a few kinds of weapons and armor in the system, so this section isn’t too terribly long – all the weapons of a particular weight do the same damage, and all the armor of a particular weight provides the same protection (and the same drain on Might). Then there’s standard sorts of adventuring gear, which the book does not waste a bunch of pagecount explaining to you (yes, I know what a rope is, thanks).

Cyphers and Artifacts

This section is a lot longer. I didn’t count, but there are probably something like a hundred cyphers (since there’s a table where you can roll d% for a random cypher). As noted above, cyphers are designed to cycle in and out of the campaign rapidly. They might cause damage, protect you, teleport, heal, scry, whatever – but only once.

The artifacts are not as numerous (in the book, and really not in a campaign), but any one artifact will have a bigger impact than a cypher because it will (usually) stick around a lot longer than a cypher. Why do I say “usually?” Because, although artifacts are ‘permanent,’ most of them require a depletion roll every time you use them – you get a bad roll and your artifact is out of commission. Some only deplete 1 in 100 times. Others shut down  after one use half of the time. Ouch. It seems like the more passive and defensive artifacts are the ones that are really permanent – armor and passive detection, for example. Artifacts, like cyphers, run the gamut in their possible effects.

GM Advice (~45 pages)

Possibly the most useful GM advice pagecount in any RPG core book I have ever read. For starters, it takes it for granted that you know what an RPG is and have some clue how they work and have probably run one before, so it doesn’t waste a lot of time on basic advice that would be a retread of every GM section of every core book you’ve ever read. This portion of the book is broken down into three sections – Using the Rules, Building a Story and Realizing the Ninth World.

A lot of the Using the Rules section is on setting difficulty levels, why the vagueness/chunkiness of the system is handy, how to use GM intrusion, and some other rules aspects. It makes important points about how the important thing with a lot of rules is to not break the players’ suspension of disbelief and to maintain consistency because without it the players cannot make intelligent decisions. On the downside, I could probably do without being told that, as the GM, I can just fix power level problems or “broken” rules by fiat – I know I can do that, but when you go out of your way to point it out, it makes me feel like you’re using that as some sort of substitute for doing your best to “balance” the crunch in the first place.

The Building a Story advice is, again, pretty down to earth and detailed as this sort of thing is going to get (sample quote: “Skip the boring bits.”) – things like varying the kind of encounters, keeping good pacing, good description, and language to use to talk about the Ninth World (for example, it’s a “ray emitter” not a “laser gun”).

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The final section, on Realizing the Ninth World, gets into more setting themes, and how to evoke it more generally.

Adventures (~40 pages)

As usual for my reviews, I do not write about the adventures in the backs of books so that they don’t get spoiled for anyone who might play through them (this is also one where I have not even read them, so I don’t spoil them for me). There are four included.

Opinions/Judgment

Probably not a surprise coming from someone with as storied an RPG background as Monte Cook, but I’ll say again that the writing in Numenera is really top-notch. The system should make life really easy for the GM (once he gets the hang of GM intrusions), with straightforward target numbers, not a ton of NPC stats to keep track of, and keeping all the rolls in the hands of the players. I imagine that evoking the setting well will be the GM’s greatest difficulty – I could see it being hard to bring the right level of mystery/wonder/weird to the table every week, when you/I aren’t all really talented RPG writers who are able to do that sort of thing for a living. I imagine that the various forthcoming supplements will help greatly with this (a bestiary, technology guide, and detailed world guidebook are in the pipeline) … but I only Kickstarted for enough to get that all in PDF, curses! (I’m one of those dinosaurs who prefers the physical book in his hand to flipping through a PDF on the tablet computer I don’t own).

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