Numenera: Flip d20 on its head

After my Pet Peeves article, some people pointed me towards Numenera, a new system from the guy who originally wrote DnD 3.5 (the worst offender of my previous complaint). Seriously? This is the guy started the whole d20 problem! Why would I go to another of his games…

Oh. Oh that’s interesting. *sees the GM sale on DriveThruRPG* Alright, let’s give it a shot.

First Impressions

   First of all, this setting is GORGEOUS! And I’m not just talking about the art. The world-building and universe realization here is astounding. There have been many reviews by people more qualified than I. Instead, I’ll list the things that I am most excited about, and what I appreciate the most from this system.

   Most of the book fleshes out the universe, which I will allow Monte Cook, the creator, to describe.

Numenera is a science fantasy roleplaying game set in the far distant future. Humanity lives amid the remnants of eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen on Earth. These are the people of the Ninth World. This new world is filled with remnants of all the former worlds: bits of nanotechnology, the dataweb threaded among still-orbiting satellites,  bio-engineered creatures, and myriad strange and wondrous devices. These remnants have become known as the numenera.
Player characters explore this world of mystery and danger to find these leftover artifacts of the past, not to dwell upon the old ways, but to help forge their new destinies, utilizing the so-called “magic” of the past to create a promising future.

This is an over-simplification, but it’s a good single-paragraph descriptor. I haven’t finished the rulebook, but here are some of the things that I appreciate most so far:

  • Pre-made world-map, and about 70 locations. Each location has a 2-3 paragraph description, including one or two interesting facts and quest-hooks. This fits my playing style perfectly, and I can turn the players loose upon the world and have an adventure prepped no matter where they go.
  • Detailed Monsters, but simplified monster creation. Monsters can be represented with a single level.
    A level 4 monster has an Difficult of 4 to attack and defend against, does 4 damage, and has HP = 3xLvl (12). It’s really easy to tweak a monster as well. I made my first monster harder to hit, but easier to dodge with an Attack of 3, defense of 5.
    This means monsters can easily be made up on the fly. However, the monsters included in this corebook include tips on how to use them, weaknesses, and common environments. It really makes it much easier to include monsters, and easier to skip the mechanical boring bits and make a really neat foe for the players
  • Cyphers, Oddities, and Artifacts. Numenera is the catch-all term for all the left-over devices and technology that litter this world. Cyphers are one-use, one-time items that are found often, and should be used often to solve problems. Having a huge list easily available, and full of interesting goodies makes it fun for characters to get loot, and easy for the GM to distribute.
  • Factions. There are several well-fleshed out factions that roam the landscape, all vying for their own resources, and in their own fashions. Players are encouraged to interact with them, and includes how to join each faction. These are cool.
  • Amazing art that really sets the tone. If you visit the website, you can get some examples of the artwork. The budget on this thing must have been amazing!
  • Interesting mechanics. I have never enjoyed heavy mechanics in my RPGs. They always seem to just weight me down. But these are loose enough that they will provide some good structure, without actually constraining anyone. I’m excited to try them out. If all else fails, I’ll just hack it to work with Dungeon World.
   Also, I was interested to read that one of the main goals behind this game design was to make it much easier to GM. Several things contributed to this, but in one of my previous posts, I talked about how assigning difficulty to tasks is incredibly frustrating, and requires a lot of prep and math. Numenera has 11 levels of difficulty, from 0 to 10. This makes it much easier to assign difficulties, and let players know how hard or easy that task may be. It has a lot of explanation and guidance within the core rulebook, rather than strict rules or more mechanics.
    I’m very impressed, and looking forward to getting a few games under my belt.

Several Days later, and a quick game or two…

   Wow. I’m seriously impressed with Numenera. It’s…..strange. I’ve never really played traditional DnD, since its very expensive to get all the books, maps, and adventures. So I’ve tended towards more indie RPGs, like Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, Monster of the Week, and FATE.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone, but here is a bullet point of the things I liked:

  • The Numenera are HELLA fun. It’s a great list of objects and oddities available. My players got very creative with their uses, and I gave them out like candy. It added a fantastic element of creative and McGuyver-like combat and puzzle solving. “Hmmm….I have a bottle of no-friction gel. How can I use that in combat?”
  • The combat is still a little clunky. I need to read more about it, but I don’t like the “make a defense roll against the attack, now make an attack roll against their defense”, it seems so turn-based and unfun. But I’ll make a house-rule, or see if I mis-read something.
  • The difficulty system is really great, and lets me assign difficulties easily and quickly. Like the video above, I just announce the difficulty to the players, and they handle all of the math and paperwork.
  • This system is very easy to GM, and is only crunchy for the players(who seem to like that stuff anyway). That is an amazing feat, and I’m impressed with how streamlined the GM process really is.
  • Character creation was fun, but took a while. Compared to Dungeon World’s 5-min creation process, this one was a bit more hefty, and took about 1.5-2 hours from start to finish. A lot of that was also intro to the system, etc.
  • The Signal is what I use for my one-shots, and that proved to be an excellent way to engage players and give them a direction without limiting them.
  • XP is a resource that can be spent in many ways, like rolling dice, getting a temporary bonus, or ret-conning some activities. I like it, and the players enjoyed the wealth of tools available for spending their XP.
   Over-all, the system works pretty well, but the universe and cypher list is what will keep us playing. Monte really did a great job with this world, and I look forward to more discovery and adventure in the future!