Tabletop Review: Ninth World Assassins (Numenera)

Ninth World Assassins
Publisher: Knowledge of the Ninth
Page Count: 103 + Special (See Below)
Cost: $5.00
Release Date: 04/03/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

I’m always a little worried with licensed third party releases on the tabletop market. Some companies tend to have really good product control of third party releases, like Chaosium. Others tend to let anything and everyone put something out for their line, ensuring that the brand is diluted thanks to having one high quality third party release for every dozen or so terrible ones. I’m looking at you WotC/Paizo. So when Monte Cooke Games announced a OGL for Numenera, I was worried that we’d see a score of third parties releases turning the game into a hack and slash dungeon crawl type thing. You know, the exact opposite of what Numenera was meant to be. I’ve managed to avoid Numenera third party releases up until now, mainly because I haven’t been sent any to review. Knowledge of the Ninth contacted me a few weeks back and asked me to look at their latest Numenera release – Ninth World Assassins. I’ll admit I was torn. On one hand, I love assassins. I play Shadowrun pretty regularly so I’m used to adventures and characters specializing in wetworks. Plus my first ever characters for 1e and 3e D&D were assassins, so I have a special place for them in my heart. On the other hand, I was worried this would be a short supplement filled with bad Assassins’ Creed or Hitman homages and page upon page of nothing but lists of weapons, poisons, and combat maneuvers, In other words my worst fear for the Numenera OGL. Is that what I got? Let’s find out.

First of all, you get a ton of content with Ninth World Assassins Generally Numenera releases are pretty short affairs. Look at Love and Sex in the Ninth World. It’s thirteen pages long. Taking the Narrative? Seven pages. In Strange Aeons? Twelve. You get the picture. Ninth World Assassins however clocks in at a whopping 103 pages, making this the third longest release for Numenera yet! You’re getting three versions of the PDF as well – one high resolution and two low resolution. Now, don’t be fooled as one of the low res PDFS clocks in at over 22 MB! If you’re going to read this on an e-reader, you’ll want the one that is “only” 13.3 MB. These are some pretty big PDFs size wise, especially compared to a lot of third party releases (and even some first party releases), so expect to encounter some loading time issues on weaker computers and/or devices. The reasons for the PDF being so huge are pretty obvious once you open one. They’re in full colour, they use a HUGE font size (especially compared to first party Numenera releases), the formatting is a bit wonky and the layering on the PDF is not very good. With the latter, the background image is causing most of the problems on weaker devices as it’s so huge. That coupled with the layering will make even a top notch computer have an issue with the PDF for a few seconds. Someone more experienced with InDesign or Pagemaker could have prevented these issues, but honestly, these are minor problems. Since this is a digital only release, the PDF can be corrected and re-uploaded. If there is ever a PoD version, well it certainly won’t having loading issues. Anyway, Ninth World Assassins is definitely a great deal in terms of the page count to money ratio, but be warned going in this thing is very unaesthetically pleasing in terms of layout, font, formatting, PDF structure and other little things that make it very apparent this release is on the lower end of production values for third party releases (as compared to say, The Island of Ignorance which had better production values than some of the first party releases for which is was made!).

Production values are a minor thing at the end of the day though. You can always get better (or hire better people) on the technical end of things. Maybe if this was a video game it would be a bigger deal, but this is tabletop gaming where CONTENT is king. I’m happy to say that not only does Ninth World Assassins have a metric ton of content, most of it is quite good and there are some wonderful ideas in this piece, which breaks itself into eight chapters, one of which (Chapter Two) is included in the core PDF but also as two separate smaller PDFs focusing on Descriptors and Foci. So technically you’re getting five PDFs for five bucks. That just sweetens the deal.

Chapter One is “Introductions” which gives you an overview of what an assassin is and why there is a need for them. You are given a wide range of potential character options including why the character is an assassin, how they got started, their thoughts on killing and how they take on clients. These are all nice things to look at, especially for less experienced gamers who aren’t sure how to create a compelling backstory for their PC or for younger gamers who think an assassin just wanders out stabbing everyone they see. There is also a wonderful look at the steps involved with the planning and execution of a hit. It’s only three pages long (In this giant font) but it hits all the bases one needs to think about. In many ways, it reads like a primer for any game big on heists, be it Shadowrun or Leverage. The only real thing I didn’t like about Chapter One was that it included (ugh) mechanics for determining how much the Assassin charges. This is needless crunch in my opinion. Never include rules for roll-playing when the action could/should be determined through straight up role-playing. I guess if you REALLY want to include mechanics for everything, have the core price be determined through role-playing and let someone whose dice are getting antsy roll after the fact for small incremental increases in pay.

Chapter Two is “Character Options” and it’s here where we get a lot of the material for character creation. There are ten new Descriptors, some of which are really well balanced, and other which are not. It’s a bit of a crap shoot. Others have some odd aspects. Blind, for example, makes you Trained in Philosophy, which makes no sense to me. It’s otherwise well balanced between positive and negatives. Some of the Descriptors like Brave and Chivalrous need tweaking as they are too powerful and unbalanced. Others like Daring and Cautious are extremely well done and I would definitely allow in my Numenera game. Overall, the good outweighs the bad with the Descriptors but we do see some evidence of power creep (albeit probably unintended) with a few of these.

There are also five new Foci in Chapter Two, all of which have applications beyond (or indeed, instead of) murdering things. “Conducts Covert Affairs” lets a character be more of a spy or work for an intelligence gathering agency. There is no shortage of guilds or societies in the Ninth World. This foci is more about giving you some nice NPC aides and contacts, but the character also gets things like a sleeper hold and the ability to be silent in combat. You know, just in case. “Crafts Powerful Poison” is a pretty cut and dry option. These poisons just aren’t damage dealing though. You have sleep and blindness poisons at Tier 3 for example. I really liked this, especially the concept of the Poison Pool (A great job of light mechanics that enforces role-playing). “Dances in Shadow” is basically the old Shadowdancer prestige class from D&D 3e or the Lasombra from V:TM. “Studies Anatomy” is by far my favorite option as it is the most versatile of the five and it can really open up Numenera to a lot of options like playing a doctor, serial killer, forensic scientist or even couple with Nano necromancer! It’s well balanced between offensive and defensive/supportive Tiers and I could see this becoming the defector “cleric” option for Numenera. Finally we have “Steals Faces” which allows a character ever increasing doppleganger abilities. It’s not necessarily unbalanced, but I can definitely see a player really abusing this if their GM isn’t up to snuff. Overall, all five Foci are quite well done, and this might just be the highlight of the book.

Chapter Three is “Tools of the Trade.” As you can imagine this chapter is all about various gear a PC can find, acquire, or already have in their possession. The Chapter breaks down into Equipment, Poisons and Traps. Equipment is actually special exotic stuff rather than standard gear. You have everything from an alien doll (good for distractions) to an Apothecary’s Kit. There are also items that can be used to create or enhance traps, even if that isn’t the first use players (or their characters) might have for them. There’s some very creative stuff here. Poisons makes up the bulk of this section though with nearly twenty pages devoted to the concept! This could have been a supplement in and of itself to be honest. It makes sense though as Ninth World Assassins was conceived of due to the author’s original confusion and issues with poisons as portrayed in the core Numenera rulebook. This area really is a top notch affair with an in-depth guide to making poisons, lists of ways a poison can be delivered (touch, injection, swallowing, airborne, etc) and so much more. You also get a list of twenty “mundane” poisons along with their effects followed by another list of twenty “Cipher” poisons. Mundane poisons are more common ones that players will find or perhaps learn to concoct themselves while cipher poisons are well, ciphers. Things they will find and not really know what they are until they ingest them or make someone else do it.

Finally, Chapter Three gives you a list of ten traps. Traps aren’t something Numenera has really covered, which means an enterprising person could make a supplement just for this concept. Personally, I’ve been using the Grimtooth’s Traps series from Flying Buffalo games when I have need for such an option in an adventure, but they are more geared for a fantasy game. Here we have some light rules for creating your own Ninth World style trap which break down into Difficulty, Assembly and Effect. It’s very nicely done and the example traps given should hold you over if you’re not having any luck designing your own. This is followed up by sixteen cipher traps which can really surprise players, especially if they are used to only picking up positive items. Whoops, now they’re being attacked by holographic luchadores.

Chapter Four is entitled “Numenera” and you know what to expect here. There are ten interesting artifacts that are geared for rogues, assassins and spies. Things like sonic dampeners, thermal projectors (to hide a specific heat signature(s)), a Ninth World version of the classic web spell and more. You also get a d100 table of oddities. This chapter is fairly short but it’s always fun to look at new devices for the Ninth World. The oddities are a bit too mundane/unimaginative for my liking, but you can’t win them all.

Chapter Five is “XP Options,” and it simply gives you new ways to spend those hard earned XP instead of just Tier climbing. Some of them like “Join Guild” and “Guild Advancement” are better off as things that are roleplayed rather than purchased for a character and it disappointed me greatly to see those as the first two options. Joining a guild should be a story in and of itself, perhaps a slow buring suplot that takes place over an adventure or three. It should be something you go, “Oh, I have these experience. By the way, I’m in Guild XYZ.” That’s not how these options were intended by the author, but unfortunately it IS how a lot of gamers will use them. This is something to definitely watch and again, if it can be achieved through role-playing alone, it shouldn’t have the option as something to directly purchase for the character. This is also true of the “Home-Base Enhancements.” This is something characters should use currency or trade on, rather than XP. The “In-Game Application” choices are better thought out as they include things like Poison Resistance and Convenient Pocket, but it still includes things that should be earned through roleplaying rather than via XP expenditures like Informant and Safehouse. Player Intrusion gets nearly an entire page of descriptive text and I’m torn on the concept. It’s not something Numenera needs, as you already have counters to GM Intrusion and in the way it is written, it’s definitely something players can abuse, especially if they are of the mindset that a RPG is something to be “won” rather than experienced. The concept of players pooling together 3XP to create a positive (or less than negative) effect occur is definitely an intriguing and interesting one, but it really needed to be defined better than the nebulous bits show here. This is an idea better left to Monte Cook Games than for a third party to try and develop because well, this is exactly what happens. A paragraph and two examples simply isn’t enough to properly flesh out and/or balance the concept to what it should be. In the form it is in here, it’s just way too easy to derail a game.

Chapter Six is “Organizations and Guilds” and it’s pretty self-explanatory. THANKFULLY this chapter talks about earning guild membership and ranking instead of purchasing ala the previous chapter, which hopefully will be how the majority does things. We also get a list of various services guilds can provide, but they are unfortunately coupled with DLs that you have to roll on to access. This is a terrible idea because access should either be universal or by your straight-forward rank in an organization. Again, these are role-playing opportunities reduced to roll-playing opportunities, which unfortunately is a recurring flaw in Ninth World Assassins. Maybe if the Guild as an organization was rolling for something obscure or hard to get sure, but a character should be rolling against their own organization to get access to something that will benefit them both. Anyway, the rest of the chapter gives a set of seven example guilds, which are fun to read and should hopefully get your troupe’s creative juices flowing.

Our penultimate chapter is “Characters and Creatures.” This gives you some notable monsters, antagonists and NPCs to inflict upon your players. It’s an odd mix. I’m trying to figure out while someone in the Ninth World would be dressed in a set of gold plate mail ala a D&D game, but whatever. The two creatures are both creepy looking and related so you can use them in tandem. I didn’t really care for the first two NPCs as they seemed a bit generic and like they belonged in a hack and slash fantasy RPG in both art and description, but the Lightning Horror has potential. There’s not much here and it’s definitely one of the weaker chapters in the book.

Finally we have our last chapter which is three pages of adventures seeds. These are what they are, and it really depends on the GM using one (or more) of these to determine the quality of the ideas. After all, a good GM can make anything work while a less experienced one pretty much needs their hand held.

So overall, I’m pleased with Ninth World Assassins. It definitely has its flaws such as a recurring desire to stick in mechanics where they aren’t needed and the production team could really use a refresher on how to make a PDF smoother as well as aesthetically pleasing, no release for anything game is without its issues or things that you can justifiably gripe about. The key thing is that the good definitely outweighs the bad in this piece as it gives you a ton of fun new fleshed out ideas for your Numenera campaign. The fact this is so reasonably priced at only five dollars means you’re getting a real bargain if you pick this up. If Ninth World Assassins is an example of what we can expect to see from the Numenera version of the OGL, then then I think Numenera is going to be in fine shape. Let’s just hope this is the standard and not the exception.

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