Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite video games ever. So when some of the creators (now dubbed inXile) of that classic joined forces with then-new tabletop RPG Numenera to create a spiritual sequel in the form of Torment: Tides of Numenera, it was a pretty easy decision for me to back that on Kickstarter. And when Monte Cook Games asked me if I’d like to review an advance (uncorrected pre-release PDF) copy of The Explorer’s Guide for Torment: Tides of Numenera, I could hardly pass that up either. The book will be released at GenCon 2016.
The Quick Take
It’s pretty cool. I’d put some sort of profane intensifier in that sentence, but this is a family friendly place.
First things first, let’s be clear about what The Explorer’s Guide is – it is a supplement for the Numenera tabletop roleplaying game. It is set in the world of the Torment: Tides of Numenera video game, but it is not about the video game. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to read The Explorer’s Guide without thinking how awesome it could be to run into this character or visit that place in the video game, but it is not a video game guide. Just so we’re all clear. (If you’re into the video game and want to learn about the tabletop RPG, you can check our review of that right over here.)
Warning: There is a “minor spoilers” warning at the front of The Explorer’s Guide, so I’ll repeat that here – there may be some sort of minor spoiler for the video game contained in this review. I wouldn’t know it if there was, but I’ll throw that out there just in case.
The lion’s share of the Explorer’s Guide (about 100 of the 160 pages) is about the locations in Greater Garravia, and the people who occupy them. The book also covers numenera, creatures, some NPCs (if I followed the Kickstarter updates more closely, I would probably know if these are potential party members in the video game), new character options, and rules for the eponymous Tides of Numenera.
Greater Garravia (~7 pages) – Garravia is just a smidge east of the standard area of the Ninth World covered by the core book, which is you remember your geography means it will be a pain to get to, since the Steadfast is on the western coast. But there are some suggestions here, if the PCs are coming from the Steadfast, instead of originally hailing from Garravia. In addition to the very basic geography, The Explorer’s Guide covers two concepts that are significant to the area. One is the Changing God, a powerful entity that spends its immortal (or close to it) life moving from body to body. What is left after the Changing God departs is known as a castoff, a being who has almost no memory of its life before, but is now enhanced and is itself exceptionally long-lived (I’m just assuming at this point that your character in the video game will be a castoff). The second, and less significant, is a long-fallen (and once thought wiped out) warlike civilization known at the Tabaht.
Sagus Cliffs (~20 pages) – The Sagus Protectorate was a nation that briefly ruled all of Garravia, with ambitions of going further. Now, it is reduced to its capital city (Sagus Cliffs) and the adjacent Bloom, a transdimensional city/creature. The city of Sagus Cliffs is as vertical as it is horizontal, and the locations covered run from bottom at the Reef of Fallen Worlds to the top at the halls of power and the Caravanserai, where airships can dock. The city is ruled by a council of families, with significant input from the “ruler” of the Bloom. Security is provided by a forces called the levies, who are short-lived constructs based on ‘taxed’ genetic material from the citizenry. Quite a few locations, people, and groups are described, including the Dendra O’hur, a cannibal cult who (correctly) believe that by eating the dead they can preserve their knowledge and memories.
The Bloom (~15 pages) – Just next door to Sagus Cliffs, and as noted above part of the city’s organizational structure, is the Bloom (they’re linked enough that the two are covered in the same chapter in the book). The Bloom serves as something of a worst-of-the-worst residence for the Sagus Cliffs, although there’s a bit more going on, what with the interdimensional portals and all. When you read something like “transdimensional city/creature,” you might picture something a bit on the ethereal side. The Bloom is not that. Living in the Bloom is to reside inside a living creature’s body, albeit a massive one – you walk on the Bloom’s flesh, the only naturally occurring beverage is “Bloom juice,” and the dimensional rifts are creatures who may take off your arm (or something more esoteric) in payment for the trip. Those who live in the Bloom for an extended time are also affected by the creature mentally, hearing voices and becoming more aggressive.
The Valley of Dead Heroes (~5 pages) – The final segment of the much-reduced Sagus Protectorate is the Valley of Dead Heroes, a sterile (and I mean sterile – no microbes) region housing a horde of memorials and one very large necropolis. The almost uninhabited valley has traditionally been the domain of the Memorialists, an order devoted to learning about the dead and passing on that knowledge so that none are forgotten. Of late, however, the Memorialists are faring badly in the face of the Children of the Endless Gate, who want to feed said dead into a ravenous interdimensional maw.
The Lost Sea (~15 pages) – The second major section of Greater Garravia, the Lost Sea is a circle of mountains surrounding a vast circle of desert surrounding a hemispherical globe of water containing the city of M’ra Jolios. The Lost Sea is the name of the desert, which is magically difficult to traverse. Doing so, however, allows one to explore M’ra Jolios, home to thousands of aquatic Ghibra, and Jerboa, the air-breather settlement that has grown up just outside the city. The Ghibra and Jerboans traditionally get along very well, but recent terrorist attacks inside M’ra Jolios by a group of airbreathers have raised tensions.
The Bore (~5 pages) – This gargantuan hole in the ground (.5km wide and 5km deep), just outside the Lost Sea (and covered in the same chapter), is the location of the city of Heref, whose current residents are three species all descended from one progenitor species, which was subject to genetic manipulation by another race in the distant past. Although their original creators are gone, the new species have spent most of their time subjugating each other in one way or another, with the current losers relegated to the deepest (and most unpleasant) strata of the city. The city is in the midst of an active revolt at the moment.
Ossiphagan/Bordermarch Hills/The Twisted Twins/Garravia Sound/Lower Garravia/The Tempest Waste (~20 pages) – Each of the listed areas is covered separately in The Explorer’s Guide, but as you can probably tell from the page count, they are not covered in anything like the detail of the Sagus Cliffs, the Bloom, or the Lost Sea. Ossiphagan (5) is a volcanic and inhospitable area populated by buildings carved from ancient (and enormous) skeletons, as well as a mysterious prison known as the Black Cube. The Bordermarch Hills (3) exist to host the Endless War between the forces of the Changing God and the First Castoff (note: not actually the first castoff, just a title) … not that either of those entities bothers with the war anymore. The Twist Twins (3) is a wooded, and generally peaceful, area. Garravia Sound (5) features towns on the backs of whales, and the Tower of Birds, an ancient lighthouse and/or weapon of mass destruction that has seen better days. Lower Garravia (2) houses an organic library and mile-wide ravines full of gelatin. Finally, the Tempest Waste (3) is, well, a wasteland, highlighted by a settlement dominated by a device called the vivifier, which they believe restores them to youth, but in fact is simply making a younger copy and then rendering the original down to its component parts.
Organizations and Groups (~5 pages) – A separate discussion of groups mostly already met in the gazetteer portion of the book, including the Children of the Endless Gate, the Cult of the Changing God, the Dendra O’hur, the Extremities of the Great Devourer (a Bloom-worshipping cult), the Memorialists, the New Tabaht (who are aways surprised to learn that everyone already knows that they are dedicated to the return of the Tabaht), and the Order of Flagellants and Austerities (an infected hive mind, rather than a traditional organization).
The Numenera (~15 pages) – This chapter contains a variety of both cyphers (20) and artifacts (40) (I imagine that the relative plethora of artifacts has something to do with the video game handing them out). A couple that I found nifty were charmpaste, a toothpaste cypher that stimulates the user’s facial muscles into a pleasant smile that makes the user seem more pleasant and trustworthy, and the smiling tattoo, a 2D creature/cypher that runs across the user’s skin and then drains blood from an open wound, replacing it with a coagulating liquid, resulting in enhanced healing.
Bestiary (~5 pages) – There are five creatures here, each with the usual full-page (including art) write-up. They include the Stichus, who are quite a bit more intelligent and organized that you might think from reading the Sagus Cliffs section …
NPCs (~10 pages) – I’m going to guess that these seven NPCs are possible party members in the game, as they are often related to each other, but are not tied to particular locations (NPCs encountered in particular areas are covered in sidebars for those areas).
Character Options (~10 pages) – In addition to content on Greater Garravia, the Explorer’s Guide presents five new descriptors (Bloomborn, Castoff, Cautious, Slick, and the Ghibra species) and three new foci (Breathes Shadow, Snares Deadly Prey, and Speaks With A Silver Tongue). I like the Cautious descriptor … but maybe that’s just because I am from time to time accused of suffering from analysis paralysis.
The Tides (~5 pages) – The Tides of Numenera are mysterious forces. They are five, most commonly referred to be color – Blue (reason, wisdom, logic, spirituality), Red (passion, emotion, action, zeal), Indigo (justice, community, fairness, compromise), Gold (philanthropy, charity, compassion, martyrdom), and Silver (influence, power, respect, fame). As someone who has more than a bit of Magic: the Gathering in his veins, it feels strongly reminiscent of the color pie. Mechanically, characters gain points in the tides when they act in accordance with the values of those tides and, each time the character gains a tier, they lock in as having an affinity for whichever tide they currently have the most points in. But the thing is, the affinity barely does anything mechanically. This feels like something that is present in the video game, so the tabletop designers felt obligated to include it, but didn’t see much of a role for it in tabletop Numenera.
I really liked The Explorer’s Guide to Torment: Tides of Numenera. Some of the sections were a bit abbreviated, but the book really made me want to explore Greater Garravia, especially the rump Sagus Protectorate. To me, the book really captured the weird exploration vibe of the original Numenera. It also incidentally got me all excited again about the video game coming out in 2017.