Tabletop Review: Numenera Core Rulebook

Numenera
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Page Count: 418
Cost: $59.99 (Physical)/$19.99 (PDF)
Release Date: 8/14/2013
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

As seems to be the growing case with all major tabletop RPG releases, Numenera began life as a Kickstarter campaign, convincing 4,658 people to donate $517,255 to its creation. Then seven months later, the Numenra brand was paired with video game developer inXile Entertainment for the Numenera video game: Torment: Tides of Numenera. This time, the brand brought 74,405 people into the fold and raised 4.1 MILLION dollars. Holy crap. So as you can imagine, Numenera has a lot of hype to live up to and a lot of backers to please. I myself missed the original Kickstarter as there were six others I was backing at the time, but I definitely made sure I was a backer for the video game. I’m normally not a Sci-Fi person, but the way Monte Cook described Numenera and how easily it would feel like a fantasy game without actually being one intrigued me. In my head I was picturing thing like Jim Starlin’s old Epic comic series, Dreadstar and C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. Of course, I’d have to wait and see the end product to determine if my first impressions were correct.

In June, I got my first taste of Numenera with the short story collection, Tales of the Ninth World. I completely and utterly loved it. It was exactly what I had hoped for with writing that made the tales sound both magic and yet full of future science. Of course, a trio of short stories is a very different thing from a 400+ core rulebook and there are lots of times where the fiction writing around a game is top notch, but the mechanics are terrible and vice versa. So I would have to wait until August 14th, when Monte Cook Games sent me a review copy of the Numenera Core Rulebook to make that final call. When after two weeks of devouring the game, I can easily say Monte Cook has a tremendous hit on his hand that is sure to please a portion of gamers. I can’t say all, because Numenera does eschew certain gaming conventions that many assume are a trope of the genre (such as killing monsters = XP) and the book comes right out and says story trumphs rules and actually includes a bit to put rules lawyers in their place. So gamers that want roll-playing over role-playing, hack and slash dungeon crawls or a game that is heavily combat oriented should look elsewhere. Instead Numenera gives you a very story oriented game where combat should be rare but conflict is constantly in the air (sometimes literally!) and ensures the focus will be on discovering the world around you. It’s also worth noting that in some way Numenera takes the concept of the “Monty Haul” campaign, a term we older gamers use for games and/or adventures (usually with a bit of derision) where the PCs are up to their necks in loot, and it not only embraces the concept but while doing so turns it inside out and completely changes the reason why players have an opportunity to get scads of crazy items with a myriad of in-game effects. As a gamer who primarily plays Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Ravenloft, games that normally eschew copious amounts of high powered magic items in favor of more mundane equipment, this was one personal paradigm that I had to break. Unlike D&D games I played as a kid where paladins would just find a Holy Avenger lying around in a goblin den at Level 1, I found the way characters obtain potentially beneficial items on a regular basis to be well done, and also balanced out so that a Tier 1 character isn’t character a miniature black hole launcher on their wrist…and if they do it’s only good for a single use. So my usual disdain for Monty Haul style games went out the window here and I found myself coming up with all sorts of items to give my players and see how they experimented with them. The end result was great fun for both the GM and the players, which is how things should be.

Numenera takes place on the Ninth World, which is basically Earth one billion years in the future. Yes, I know, the sun won’t be around in a billion years, but remember that 1) this is just a game so you should really just relax and 2) that right there is a potential story arc in and of itself for you to write! By this time, Earth has been home to eight previous empires/dynasties/cycles of existence. So in some ways this idea of “worlds” is similar to the concept of worlds you find in Shadowrun, save Shadowrun has cycles of 2,500 years and Numenera‘s worlds are literally millions of years apart. Some of these previous worlds were populated by humans, while others were races that bore little to no resemblance to humanity. There is no way to know save for the things left of the planet littering the landscape. Some of these worlds had science beyond anything we can imagine, some of these worlds were the center of intergalactic empires and some of these worlds are completely lost to the sands of time. All we know (in-game and out) is that those empires have come and gone, never to return and all the Ninth World has are various objects and artifacts from those previous time periods. Sometimes a person can figure out what they do, while other times the item is so completely alien, experimentation is the only option. Perhaps the item creates bubbles that when popped release a jaunty little tune, perhaps the item is a piece of mirrored glass that when stared at long enough causes a sandwich to appear in midair. Perhaps the item is a weapon of great power. Perhaps the item is a piece of broken junk. It’s all up to the GM to decide what he wants to populate his world with and a good portion of the fun is placing these items for the PCs to discover and try to find a use for. I can’t stress enough that Numenera is a game of discovery first and foremost. Most of all those is that while the GM and the PCs discover the world of Numenera together, they’ll also discover ways to have exciting and memorable adventures – many of which will never have a single combat based roll to them. I love this.

I absolutely love how the game flows. Every roll of the die in Numenera is by the players only. The GM is there to tell a story and facilitate what happens. The players are the ones actually playing, so no DM screens with fudged die rolls nor any time where the game feels like it is PCs vs. the GM. As well, character and thus player cooperation is intrinsically tied into this mechanic. For example, whenever the GM wants to add a bit of conflict or chaos to the proceedings, it is called “GM Intrusion.” Say the GM wants the player to miss his attack so the antagonist can get away or decides to make climbing a sheer wall harder with a sudden torrential downpour. With this intrusion, the GM gives the player in question 2 XP. So you’re still getting experience points for conflict or overcoming obstacles but not for randomly going into a village and killing all the 0 level humans and justifying it because you are a chaotic evil cleric of death. When a player is given these two experience points, he or she immediately gives one of them to another player and must state why. So when a GM intrudes, two players benefit. You can see why this fosters a team cooperative environment rather than some games that end up having one dick PC who wants to do everything, be the center of attention or who just wants to antagonize the other characters. Sure you can still play an annoying twat who is trying to hurt the other characters if you want, but watch as you get little to no XP and are more than likely abandoned to something like the iron wind or a giant cyborg reptile with chainsaws for teeth. As well, intrusion can be blocked by the player in question if they are willing to say no to the 2XP AND spend 1 XP of their own. This is a great way of letting players maintain some degree of control and makes sure all people involved in a game of Numenera remember that they are telling a story TOGETHER. There are other ways to earn XP, such as completing an adventure, discovering new items or locations and accomplishing set goals the GM has in mind for you, but GM Intrusion is perhaps the most striking, memorable and frequently occurring in a Numenera adventure.

Roughly a fourth of the book is devoted to the world of Numenera such as the nine kingdoms, the Beyond and organizations within the giant supercontinent. There’s far too much to go into here but suffice to say, I was impressed by how much detail was packed into the world in the core rulebook. Many a game keeps this information spare or brief and then has you buy later releases to fully flesh out the game world. Not with Numenera. Everything you need to fully immerse yourself in the setting in within the 418 pages of this book. The same is true for various creatures/monsters you will encounter as there are a whopping forty pages devoted to those and roughly the same amount of pages are devoted to just a sample of the ciphers, artifacts and oddities you can dispense to players in this game. Now the game does strongly and freely encourage GMs to create their own as the only limits within Numenera are created by your own imagination. That said, the game has at least four other releases planned for the near future starting with The Devil’s Spine in October, which is a collection of adventures and it will be followed by The Ninth World Bestiary, which is an entire book devoted to new creatures and characters, the Technology Compendium which will offer hundreds of more Numenera for your campaign and The Ninth World Guidebook, which will be a supplement to the core rule book. Again, you won’t NEED any of these as Numenera is pretty self-contained with this one book, but for those that fall in love with the setting and/or prefer canon pre-created pieces and adventures over homebrewing it, Monte Cook Games has you covered.

The rules for Numenera are extremely easy to learn. Most of the time you don’t roll. If it’s a basic easy action, you just tell the story together as players and GM. It’s only when a task is required that you roll. There are ten levels for a challenge. A level one challenge requires a 3 or higher on a d20 while a level ten challenge requires a 30 or higher on a d20. Obviously the latter is impossible, but it can be done based on your character build. You might have an item that lowers the difficulty of a challenge or your character might be skilled enough in the task to lower it. These lowering bonuses stack, so if say, a character has an item that makes climbing easier by two levels, which level ten difficulty drops to a level eight. If you are trained in climbing, that difficulty drops to level seven and if you are specialized in climbing, it would instead drop to a level six challenge. Suddenly that impossible 30 you needed to roll is now an 18. Still quite hard to do, but it is now in the realm of the possible. You can further spend Effort Points to reduce the difficulty further. Like the item and skill, effort can reduce a challenge up to two levels and it also stacks, so if you spend enough points, this level ten challenge could drop even further to a mere level four. So the impossible task of 30 could be reduced fully to only needing a 12 if you have all the right gear and skills, as well as enough effort points. Hey, it might be less than a fifty percent shot, but I’ll take it over an impossible number to roll any day, right? There’s a wonderful play descriptor section in the book where three players name Bruce, Diana and Clark (please tell me you get the joke there) take their characters on a Numenera adventure. Not only is it wonderfully done in terms of showing how one rolls and plays Numenera, but it’s a lot of fun to read.

Character creation might be the weakest area in the gamer at first glance. After all, there are only three character classes and three stats. You also have to pick a character descriptor, but there are only twelve to choose from. The same is true for a character foci, but there are at least thirty of these to choose from. Finally, characters start at First Tier and the maximum one can advance to is Sixth Tier. When you read all this on paper, it looks like character creation options are extremely limited compared to other games and that if you play the game regularly, character builds might start to look a lot alike. After all, pretty much every game I can think of gives you far more options for character building. Yes, options are limited and no, from what I’ve seen there are no plans to expand this, but just because the options feel spare, doesn’t mean they actually are. After all, the character creation chapter itself is sixty pages long and even with what is provided there are still plenty of ways to customize your character so that it stands out even if two players decide to make a Mystical Nano that Employs Magnetism. There won’t be a lot of difference between the two, but their Stats of Might, Speed and Intellect will be different as these are customizable. The powers one gains with each tier and through character advancement will more than likely be quite different too as there are several to pick from. Finally, the personality and background the player infuses the character with will really make the two stand out from each other. So yes, while the options for character creation and advancement are far more limited than in a lot of others games, there are more than enough options in Numenera to make a character that stands out from the rest of your party.

After my two weeks with Numenera, I have to admit I am extremely hooked. I love the mechanics, the character creation process, but most of all I love the world and the almost limitless range I can have with it. If I want to write a horror adventure where something unspeakable is stalking the players, I can. If I want to do a more fantasy dungeon crawl type adventure, I can. Hell, I could even do a Shadowrun style raid or an adventure that is nothing but talking heads engaging in political intrigue and you know what – each of the above would fit the game perfectly and stay true to the world and/or setting. It’s a wonderful game in every respect and it has me extremely curious how the video game will play since video game RPGs are almost pure combat and Numenera is anything but. It seems like it the setting would work better as a point and click adventure game, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’ll admit that I’m still kicking myself for not having gotten the chance to back Numenera via Kickstarter (I did back the video game though), but I’m utterly in love with the setting right now and honestly, between Numenera and Mummy: The Curse, this has been one of the best year for brand new tabletop IPs in a very, VERY long time. I can’t recommend Numenera enough. The game is well done and so rules light that even someone completely new to tabletop gaming can play this with ease, while long time vets will fall in love with the fact the game is written so wonderfully and the mechanics are almost instinctual. You can get the core rule book for insanely cheap on Amazon right now ($36.85 instead of the MSRP of $59.99), so by all means grab it there if you would prefer a physical copy over the even cheaper ($19.99) extremely hyperlined PDF that is available at DriveThruRPG.com. At the end of the day, Numenera is a game of storytelling and discovery and is designed to help foster a cohesive and cooperative atmosphere between the GM (who probably should be called a Storyteller for this game but White Wolf might get grumpy if Monte did that…) and players. My only worry is that future releases won’t be as brilliant as this core rule book but between Tales of the Ninth World and the Numenera Core Rulebook, this fledging brand is two for two in my book and I’m excited to see what is next.

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