Monday, January 26, 2015

Wandering into Numenera

I've recently acquired the Numenera Core Rulebook from Gaming Library, last Thursday and though
I've known about it thanks to Jay, it's till only now that I can do a proper review about it.


Numenera is a game made by Monte Cook; one of the people involved in creating D&D 3.0,which is
set in a future Earth one Billion Years from now. In Numenera players create complex characters
using a simple formula: My character is an "Adjective" "Noun" who "Verbs", and is played by rolling
a d20 against a difficulty level. One of the most important things this game has to offer is that
only the players roll. I'll divide this review focusing on the key sections of the game; mainly
Character Creation, Setting and Playing the game, hopefully properly explaining everything to
would be players.

Now when I first read about the game on /tg/ I found myself extremely
confused upon hearing the specifics of the game but after hearing a proper and thorough explanation
from Jay I became extremely interested and tried to gather enough interest
from my friends to actually try out the game when the book becomes available locally.

In what Monte Cook calls his Cypher system I immediately found it interesting and versatile mainly because when players create characters a lot of them usually ask me as a DM - can I become a Two Weapon Warrior, a Tough Hardy Barbarian, A Rogue who can talk his way out of anything and other variations of simple descriptions of what they want to play as regardless of the system.

I believe that this is a great way to entice people who've never even tried D&D into table top role-playing aside from that it mitigates power-gaming from the older players. Its a simple enough way to create a character, that a new player can be done within minutes; even slight overlaps between characters are hardly noticeable. For example a Charming and Clever character may sound the same; when you look at it even stat-wise, but depending on how a player and GM work together to describe a character's action both become completely different. Let's say both players are given a situation where they have to broker a deal with bandits to stop attacking a town; a Charming character would more likely describe his actions by charming the lower ranking members of the bandits into joining him and rebelling against their leader and maybe become town guards, where as a  Clever character might deceive the leader into believing that he has an army behind his back that would instantly destroy the band if they continued their actions.

Character Creation

Character creation is divided into three segments mainly:

Character Type

Character type is the "Noun" part of the "Adjective","Noun" who "Verbs" formula.
Numenera offers three Character types, they are Glaives, Nanos and Jacks. The best analogy I can give to differentiate each of these types is Glaives are your generic warriors, Nanos are your Mages or  Techpriests and Jacks are your Rogues and Jack of all Trades(Hence the word Jacks).

These types however aren't as fixed as other games; A Glaive for example may be your stereotypical tough,  mindless berserkers or they can be cold calculating assassins. It all depends on the combination of your character descriptor and focus and of course how well you describe your character overall.

Character Descriptor

Character descriptor is the "Adjective" portion of the formula. The Numenera core rulebook
and players guide offers 12 basic descriptors like, Charming and Tough. However the Player Option splat book offers a bigger selection to further customize a character. Each descriptor grants a character bonuses and sometimes extra abilities depending on its nature. For example from the given example above Charming grants a bonus to intelligence and training in skills relating to seduction, bluff and persuasion and the like while Tough grants a bonus to might and Armor and Might Defense.

Character Focus

Character descriptor is the "Verb" portion of the formula. The Numenera core rulebook
and players guide has a wide selection of various foci such as Bears a Halo of Fire and Rides the Lightning again the Players Option splat book expands a player's choices. Each foci becomes a sort of power source  and character overlaps change when combined with descriptor and focus. Let's compare a Glaive and Nano with Bears a Halo of Fire as their focus.

They both gain the ability Shroud of flame however when a player and Gm works together when describing their actions A Glaive's weapon becomes enshrouded with flame when he attacks with pierce or thrust while a Nano's onslaught ability originally described as a force of psychic energy, becomes described as a blast of flame. These descriptions don't factor in mechanically but are more for flavor and story.

Combining each detail, Type, Descriptor and Focus give a limitless amount of combinations. Even with overlapping character concepts a player will likely be able to enjoy the game without being
under the shadow of a similar character.

Aside from the mechanical side of character creation, each of its portion grants the options to help a
player developing his or her character's back story and player links.


Numenera is set in a far future a billion years from now, with several civilizations coming and going
affecting the earth in various ways leaving their marks on it. Book further expand's on the games setting however it can be very overwhelming to both new and old players alike so to briefly describe Numenera's otherwise deep setting, think of game's setting as an 80's sci-fi/fantasy cartoon mainly HE-MAN. Other references you could make with the game's setting is Riddick, or Wheel of Time.

It's a rich vibrant setting which fuses old world aesthetics and treats science and technology as magical. A GM can even create an isolated sub-setting in the world of Numenera to fit his ideal sub-setting without affecting much of the worlds canon.

I personally find the setting to be a hard setting to create campaigns for compared to other games like D&Dwhich enables a GM to create a campaign simply by using premade settings like forgotten realms or homebrew their own setting by drawing from Tolkien, Anime or Games. Even 40k Roleplay like Death Watch and Only War is easier to create a campaign for due to its rich setting and simply watching any war movie like Saving Private Ryan or more recently Fury and American Sniper is enough to get a GM's creative juices flowing.

Had friends of mine not reminded me that Numenera feels like old 80's cartoons like He-man, Galtar and the Golden Lance, Pirates of Darkwater and even The Herculoids I probably wouldn't be able to run my own custom campaign with this game and I would probably have to rely heavily on adventure modules (Thank god the Core Book has 4 free).

Playing the Game

The game uses a very simple difficulty number vs dice roll test to determine everything that happens in the game. The GM simply declares a difficulty level ranging from 1-10 multiplying it by 3 to
determine player's target number and the players roll a d20 and compares it against the difficulty to see if he passes. So a difficulty 3 requires a 9 on the d20 to pass. Aside from this basic rule players have skills, items or assets and what the game calls spending effort, that can reduce a tests difficulty which when they  reduce it to 0 they automatically pass. Unlike other RPG's Numenera rarely calls for the GM to roll any dice, when he does its likely only for a random encounter or rewards but overall he rolls next to nothing.

To further expand on this topic, lets say a situation calls for the player to jump across a gorge and the
GM declares it a difficulty 5 speed test; requiring a 15 or higher on the d20 to pass. The player is playing a Rugged Glaive who Carries a Quiver. Being rugged gives him training in Jumping reducing the task by 1, he also has a rope which he wants to use as a sort of swing is counted as an asset reducing the difficulty once more by 1. Finally he decides to spend 3 points of speed as effort further reducing the difficulty by 1. The tests final difficulty is now 2(5-3) which now only needs a 6 or higher to pass.

Another of the games features is what they call the GM Intrusion. GM intrusion enables the GM to create interesting situations, advance the story or simply to complicate things for the players.
Let's go back to the jumping a gorge test, if the player succeeds the jump the GM can use this
opportunity to perform an intrusion and say the rope snaps or the landing spot suddenly crumbles which  causes the character to fall into the gorge. The player now has the choice to accept or reject this intrusion. If the player accepts he or she receives 2 XP from the GM, 1 for himself and the other to give to another player. If he or she rejects the intrusion he or she simply forfiets the XP grant with a 1 XP tax along with it and continues on with the original success result.

Final Notes

I like Numenera's system mainly because it's easy on the GM as it reduces the number of things he has to keep track of and focus on the story. Without looking at the book constantly a GM who homebrews a campaign can arbitrarily assign difficulty levels as he sees fit and still have a semblance of balance. Combat is easier since a GM can simply memorize the level, the armor and damage of basic monsters. Should the players ever need NPC allies a GM can simply give them a Level, specific weapon and armor and aside from roleplaying how that NPC acts he can effectively have the players control them.

A good GM can create a riveting story by focusing more on skill challenges without making the combat characters feel useless. He can do this by throwing in a very difficult combat encounter once in a while kind of like a boss monster to keep the players on their toes.

Overall Numenera is a great game, new and old players can easily delve into it without being too
overwhelmed; aside from reading the setting. Its price; approximately 40USD depending on where you get it from, is well worth it and with 4 free adventures its likely going to see heavy use.

I did a quick playtest last saturday with two friends of mine to get acclimated to the system;
to get ready for Jay's sessions, and I ran the first free adventure from the book; "The Beale of Boregal"  and we quickly cleared five encounters in about 2 hours more or less, losing time as I had to flip back and  fourth from the book but I think once I get the hang of running the game we could probably finish one shot  adventures in a span of 3-5 hours.

I'll write up a play report in a couple of days hope you stay tuned to read it and again feel free to leave a comment or suggestions.

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