Review – Ninth World Guidebook (Numenera)

NinthWorldJust in case you didn’t get enough exposure to the weird with the Numenera core book (which was fabulous), Monte Cook and Shanna Germain followed it up last year with the Ninth World Guidebook. This 250-page, full-color hardcover (MSRP about $50) is primarily focused on new locations (sometimes in the already-established parts of the setting, sometimes in entirely new vistas), but there is also some background on life in the Ninth World, additional creatures, and a few new character options.

Contents

The Steadfast and Beyond (~40 pages): With the general contours of the Steadfast and the Beyond already laid out in the Numenera core book, these chapters move directly into presenting individual locations. Each of these places includes several particular items of interest, typically some sort of town, a significant exotic structure or being, and then additional bits of weirdness. For example, the Thaemor Foothills includes the village of Osmus (ruled by a replicant of an ancient quasi-religious figure) and the Cloudbridge (a massive bridge crossing a large valley and topped with mysteries of its own, including a telepathic floating boulder), plus tales of missing children, unusual weather, etc. And because it wouldn’t be Numenera without really tall weirdness, you can find a 10-page write-up of 8,000-meter Izaltu’s Needle and the mysteries it contains.

FrozenSouthThe Frozen South (~25 pages): As you might guess from the name, the Frozen South is immediately south of the more established part of the setting and is more than a bit chilly. Although this region existed in the core book, it was not detailed, and so the chapter on the Frozen South (like the remaining gazetteer chapters in the Ninth World Guidebook) provides an introduction to this area of the setting, and the chapter spends more time on the broader strokes of the areas described. The Frozen South and pretty much everything in it are, unsurprisingly, defined by the intense cold that permeates the region. Either you’re freezing, or you’re in an area that has some mysterious magic that makes it not-freezing. The most heavily detailed segment of the Frozen South is the Southern Wall, which separates the Frozen South from the Steadfast and the Beyond, and which contains mysteries of its own …

The Spiritlands (~25 pages): Lostrei, just north of the Steadfast, might just be the most pleasant area in the Ninth World – they are freedom-loving, egalitarian, close to nature, and are falsely accused by the Amber Papacy of preparing for war when, in fact, they want nothing but peace. Not that there aren’t bandits and such about, but even the unique weirdness of the Spiritlands is heavy on the purely strange and alien, with little that is aggressive or menacing. All of the locations outside the Steadfast and the Beyond are, to some extent, more homogenous and more suitable as travel destinations than places where the characters are from and hang out on a regular basis (being bitingly cold all of the time ceases to be interesting, after all, if it’s always bitingly cold and everyone is always prepared for it). Lostrei seems particularly more set up as a place to be visited, with a lot of the exploration coming from erroneous expectations on the part of characters from the Steadfast, and in exploring cultural elements that would be fairly familiar to someone from Lostrei itself.

The Red Kingdom (~30 pages): If Lostrei is the land of playing nice, Vralk is on the opposite end of the malice spectrum. For most, life in the Red Kingdom is nasty, brutish, and short. The fauna (and even some of the flora) is deadly, the air and ground itself can be poison, and the people are vicious. The only currencies recognized in Vralk are strength and violence. Unprepared characters visiting the Red Kingdom, which takes its name from the rocky wasteland itself, can expect a quick trip to the slave pens or a quick trip to the afterlife. While Lostrei is suspected of preparing for war (but is not), Vralk is gearing up to invade the more familiar parts of the Ninth World, led by her Dread Majesty Queen Auster. Characters will likely visit the Red Kingdom for an intense mission of espionage and danger.

Rayskel

Rayskel Cays (~25 pages): The archipelago is located in the oceans far (over 1600 km) to the west of the Steadfast. While the Cays have an environmental theme (in this case, tropical islands) like the Frozen South, it is not nearly as defining (getting from place to place typically requires some distinctive transport, but there are several options, and the locations themselves do not need to be aquatic). Nor is it as single-minded in attitude as the inhabitants of Lostrei or Vralk. As such, the Rayskel Cays might be the most suited of those for a more ‘traditional’ Numenera exploration of what’s over the horizon, and lots of wonderfully weird sites (and sights) are to be expected. One of my favorites was the village of Kinider, in which the ‘buildings’ are buried, transparent tubes of an unknown substance. The Rayskel Cays are also home to a nonhuman species, the Echryni, who are suitable for player characters (just take the Echryni Descriptor). The amphibious Echryni have an unusual lifecycle (which will probably not enter much into the life of a PC) and the ability to create semisolid objects out of water (which certainly will).

Passage

Lands of the Dawn (~30 pages): If you paid attention in your Ninth World geography class, you will recall that the Steadfast is on the southwestern cost of a supercontinent. The lands of the dawn, as you might guess from the title of this chapter, are on the northeastern side of the continent. Their inclusion in this book as a relevant entity is thanks to a the creation of a magical tunnel (the Great Reach) between one side of the continent and the other (a passage that, at least in-setting, makes it vastly easier to get from the Steadfast to the lands of the dawn than from the Steadfast to the Rayskel Cays, even though the latter is eight times closer than the former). The lands of the dawn are divided into five areas – three human nations (one far more organized than anything in the Steadfast), one nation of uraeyl (nonhumans who consider humans to be something akin to clever cattle – and, yes, that includes the part where they are fans of Soylent Green), and one dark wilderness. Although they do not have their own lands, a race of sentient octopi lurks in the nearby waters, looking to cause problems. Beyond that, there are the Proxima, beings born of human parents that are not quite right in some not entirely describable way. The Great Reach itself opens into the land of Carao, a nation ruled by the Queen in Lilies and tied together by the extensive use of living airships. While there are differences between the Steadfast and the human-controlled lands of the dawn they are, as with the Rayskels, not as defining or restrictive, and a group could easily go on ‘traditional’ Numenera adventures here.

Life in the Ninth World (~20 pages): This section of the book contains some ‘generic’ information on basics of life in the Ninth World – stars, weather, seasons, the calendar, organizations, life in communities of various sizes, class structure, romantic relationships, and the economy. Given the page count, each of these topics can be addressed only in a brief manner.

Creatures (~30 pages): This section includes 27 new bestiary entries, almost all of them one page each and almost all including a full-color illustration. Two of the more interesting (to me) entries in the creatures section are Apricari (biomechanical mounts used by sentient octopi to move about on land) and Kateraptis (a 4m-tall avian that induces a disturbing reproductive/cloning process in its victims for the purpose of eating the new spawn).

Apricari_GuidoKuip_2014

Character Options (~10 pages): The Ninth World Guidebook includes 1 Focus (Lives on the Road) and 10 Descriptors, most of which are linked to specific locations described in the book (Coraoan, Desert-Dwelling, Devout, Echryni, Elychnious, Frostborn, Gaian, Proxima, Rayskelan, Vralkan).

Thoughts

The back cover of The Ninth World Guidebook promises that “new, weird lands await discovery,” and also “the incredible level of detail, imagination, and weirdness you already love about Numenera.” Does the supplement live up to that promise? I would say mostly. Some would argue that the best thing about Numenera was just reading all the bizarre locations, creatures, and people invented for the book, and the Ninth World Guidebook is aimed at delivering exactly more of that. So you’re getting an extra helping of one of the best parts of Numenera, maybe the best, and that makes the Guidebook a pretty attractive supplement. With that said, in my personal opinion the Guidebook doesn’t quite live up to the standards of the original core book. The Rayskel Cays, the Lands of the Dawn, and the new content in the Steadfast and the Beyond all deliver at peak Numenera performance. The Frozen South and the Red Kingdom (and the Spiritlands to a lesser extent), however, don’t exude that weird vibe for me as much – the Frozen South is too defined by its weather, and the Red Kingdom by the total inability to live a normal sort of life in society. Although given full treatment, I feel like they are better suited to one-shot missions, rather than extended exploration. Still, the Numenera core book set a ridiculously high bar, and not managing to quite reach that bar still puts the Ninth World Guidebook at a very high level, one well worth picking up.


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