Numenera is a new(ish) roleplaying game by Monte Cook, funded by Kickstarter and associated with the ‘Torment’ computer game sequel. It’s a Sci-Fantasy game with an ‘anything goes’ aesthetic but it’s also a game with some bizarrely contradictory themes and design decisions.
This is another big-ass brick of a game book, 400 pages of full-colour goodness packed to the gills with ‘stuff’.
Numenera is set in ‘the ninth world’, a time and place a billion years into the future, where civilisation upon civilisation has come and gone – each leaving a technological legacy behind that is no longer distinguishable from magic. It’s a world of technomagic and mutations, constant oddities and endless, lost mysteries. It’s wide open and, somehow, comes across as feeling more fantasy than science fiction, but with a flexibility to the setting that makes it feel more acceptable to go overboard than many fantasy settings.
The system itself is pretty simple, a d20 against a set difficulty (so wild success and failure is fairly likely rather than average results), non-random weapon damage and a whole bunch of modifying effects, skills and special capabilities that somewhat complicate the basic rules, but not overly much.
Characters are defined by their broad class (Glaive/Nano/Jack – which amounts to fighter/mage/rogue) and by a trio of descriptors, with some amount of additional customisation. For example, you might be a ‘Charming Jack who Controls Gravity’ and that combination will give you a good grounding for RP and baseline of statistics. Characters advance through ‘tiers’, which is something between freeform character advancement and levels with total XP spent accumulating to take you up to the next tier. It’s the best (or worst) of both worlds, depending on your preference.
Two innovations are presented in these rules. The idea of effort, and leaving all the rolls up to the players.
The Games Master leaves the players to roll their attacks and their defences and it’s the result of these rolls that determines what happens, rather than the more conventional back-and forth. This has its advantages, but it does require a lot of trust and also means that the creatures are relatively simplistic and the players have to be aware of their statistics. If you like to keep things hidden or hit people with a surprise, this won’t work so well for that.
Effort is an expendable resource you can use to make things easier and, as a rules innovation, it’s one that it seems odd we haven’t had before. It plays a roll similar to fate or hero points in other systems but rather than representing ephemeral luck, it represents stamina, willpower, grit and determination – the ability to focus and concentrate on a task. Spending effort lowers difficulties, making it easier for you to accomplish things. This works very well and is definitely an idea I’ll be stealing for my own games.
Alongside this light, modern system there’s a lot of call-backs to old-school play as well, particularly in the form of random tables for just about everything under the sun. There’s definitely an old-style aesthetic and style to the game, but more of the Conan influence than a direct D&D/Tunnels and Trolls inspiration. Planetary Romances and books like the Majipoor series or the Dying Earth, so a different meaning of ‘old school’ than that which those of the OSR might mean.
Presentation-wise, Numenera is clean, crisp and clear but the illustrations are sometimes a little small and fiddly on the page and could have done with being expanded. Especially since they’re so important to establishing the look and feel of the game – such as there is a unifying look and feel.
What we have, then, is a wide-open setting full of boundless sci-fantasy and magitech possibilities, with a light and flexible system (though it could do with a few more codified options for character types) and a host of bizarre looking inspirational art. That, along with some other material in some other chapters on equipment, monsters etc would take you to a book of about 200 pages. The rest is taken up with some sample adventures (personally I don’t think this is a good use of real estate in a main book unless it’s really bare bones) and a whole bunch of setting material.
Including so much defined setting material in companionship to these rules and this broad a level of game possibility seems an odd choice. To tie down the sheer potentiality to specific people, places, things, encounters seems to somehow lessen the raw sense of potentiality and awesomeness you get from the material up to that point. Of course, you can ignore all of that and come up with your own stuff but when writing a review you really have to review what’s there as a whole.
All things considered Numenera is an interesting game with some interesting approaches to rules and character creation/definition, but it is also a game of contradictions. Unalloyed new-school rules married up to old school aesthetics and random tables. A wide-open game world of infinite possibilities that is then bound and chained down to a specific setting. I would have preferred, I think, a slimmer volume of rules, concepts, ideas and examples – without the setting. There is a setting book coming out separately and it may have been better to leave that part of it to that, rather than having so much in the main book. I’d have kept it more optional.
Style: 4 (only inconsistency lets it down).
Substance: 3 (the extra substance that’s included is to the detriment of the book overall, but there’s no denying that it’s there).
Final Word: This game is wide open for some enjoyable weird-ass games and the system is probably a good one for introducing slightly older n00bs to role-playing but it feels overindulgent and could have done with being stripped back and leaner – at least for the core book.