Today we are talking about Numenera. I supported Monte Cook’s Kickstarter last year and have been anxiously awaiting the release of the core rules, which happened for backers last Thursday. It has taken me a week to get through it, but I finally finished Numenera (and have had a chance to run it once). I was going to do an in-depth review of it, but I saw that the blog Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer is doing one of their [Let’s Study] series on Numenera. This blog is fantastic, and I recommend you head over there for a great in-depth look at the mechanics of Numenera.
As I am going to be posting this review on my FLGS’s website, and to be nice to the friends who voluntarily edit these longer posts for me, I am going to keep my review to an overview depth. So without further typing on my part,
Review of Numenera
This review applies to the PDF copy of Numenera and the Numenera Player’s Guide
Numenera is a science-fantasy RPG from Monte Cook Games. What does the term science-fantasy mean? It means you have all your traditional fantasy trappings; mages, warriors, demons, artifacts, etc., but they are really just science that few understand any more. It may seem like a minor distinction, but Monte Cook does a great job of explaining why this setting is different and this distinction adds a lot of soul to this new game. It is an heir to the great works of fiction by Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance, and if you enjoy that genre you now have a game that caters to its every whim.
The book is gorgeous. The text is laid out in a crisp two column format with lots and lots of pictures. Reminiscent of Monte’s previous work Ptolus the side bars are filled with quotes, information and cross-referencing. Any game or world terminology that is called out in the text have the page reference called out in the side bar for ease of use. This will be a great boon when the having the physical book in front of you, but is hyperlinked for ease of use in the PDF. It almost off sets the fact that the book does not contain a series of chapter bookmarks. While you are able to zip around the PDF easily from term to term, finding a chapter requires you to jump back to the beginning and hyperlink to the chapter from the Table of Contents. [This has been updated by the company since this review. The bookmarks fully integrated.]
The book is broken up into nine sections each with a number of chapters underneath the broad section heading. It totals 417 pages in PDF form. It is interesting to note that the majority of section 1 and 2 are replicated in the Player’s Guide. This guide is designed to give your players everything they need understand the basics of the rules and setting, as well as the entirety of character creation. As I ran three players through character creation last night with just one PDF, the Player’s Guide would have made a great addition to speed this step up. When I run this at my table, I will be supplying my players with copies of the Player’s Guide for this very reason.
New World, New Game
The core rules starts off with a brief introduction and a short story (which is available for free on the Numenera website) to introduce the reader to the world. I enjoyed the Amber Monolith as it does give you a feel for this strange world you are stepping into.
Part 1: Getting Started
Part 1 gives a more in-depth look at the world, explaining why it is called the Ninth World and starts throwing some terminology at the reader. It defines the numenera and gives you slight frame of reference, and the pitfalls of such a reference, before delving into the rules.
The rule set is streamlined and easy to pick up, and vaguely reminiscent of other d20 systems Mr. Cook has worked with. But Numenera is its own beast. The players are the focal point of the mechanics, as they roll for everything. I do mean everything, the GM only rolls if he wants to, leaving him to focus on narrating the story. For example, in combat players roll verses a TN to hit, and to avoid being hit. The players have a number of ways to manipulate the TN’s in their favor and the game revolves around a very interesting stat economy that functions as both a power pool, an effort pool, and a damage pool.
Part 2: Characters
This section, also part of the player’s guide, covers all of character creation. Creation is simple in Numenera, and reinforces ties to the world, first adventure, and even other PC’s. There are three types of characters in the game: Glaives [warriors], Nanos [mages], and Jacks [jack of all trades]. After choosing your type you choose a descriptor and focus, and pick your gear and are done. My group came up with the following characters for our one shot:
Sphinx is a charming [descriptor] jack [type] who explores dark places [foci]. He put together this group after being asked to join another of other expeditions. He also shows promise with broadsword, so Gronk is training him, while he and Flint have been on other expeditions before and found that they work well together.
Gronk is a strong [descriptor] glaive [type] who masters weapons [foci]. A master of the broad sword, he signed on to this adventure for need of money. After talking with his friend the scholar he felt prepared to journey off, although he talks to machines very poorly.
Flint is a mechanical [descriptor] nano [type] who talks to machines. He also needed the money, perhaps because he is so off-putting to people due to his birthmark that he ends up paying more for gear.
All in all, it took about an hour with one book to explain the game, work through character creation and start playing. Which when you look at how much of the groups background was developed and the fact that I explained 90% of the game to new players, this is very impressive.
Part 3: Playing the Game
You are probably thinking, wasn’t this covered in Part 1? Well yes and no. This section has more in depth explanations of the rules, special circumstances and a plethora of optional rules. Normally I am not a fan of optional rules, but these are minor tweaks for a little more detailed game play. Monte covers the fact that he wanted to keep the main rules nice and streamlined, so these are minor additions to add in as the game progresses. It is a chapter I would skip on the first read through. Still the whole of rules and optional rules amount to 45 pages of the rule book. That is just over 10% of the page count!
Part 4: The Setting
This is the meat and potatoes of the text. The five chapters that make up this section cover living in the setting, the major sections and nations of the world, and the organizations that fill that world. Each nation or region has stats for NPC’s, rumors and a number of weird goings-on that will spark your imagination and provide great story hooks. A deep reading through this section is mandatory in my mind, as each piece is evocative and filled with art and descriptions that convey the sense of Numenera, rather than just reading like a list of locations.
Part 5: Creatures & Characters
Ah the bestiary section. As you know from reading my blog, I love these sections of books, and Numenera doesn’t disappoint. You have flavorful creatures that fit the setting, sparked my imagination, and most have a great picture for referencing when you use them. The way Numenera handles beasts and NPC’s makes it very easy to create new ones on the fly or modify existing ones. And each creature comes with suggestions for how to use them in a game, how to intrude [when the GM offers PC’s XP for a twist in the story] and what loot your players will find on them.
The whole game system makes running these creatures a lot of fun. Special abilities are easy to manage, as are a variety of creatures in one encounter, as the whole of the rolling falls to the PC’s. As the GM you are ‘merely’ describing the events, setting TN’s and waiting to intrude with XP so that your PC’s start to sweat.
Part 6: The Numenera
Technology, or numenera, comes in three flavors in this game. And after an overview of the types of technology available, the book delves into them. You have cyphers, volatile once use items, artifacts, more stable reusable items, and oddities, items whose purpose is strange and unfathomable.
All of my players loved this aspect of the game. The cyphers are strange and interesting, and some are quiet powerful. But that is ok, as the book points out, they are one use items. Even if they obliterate your encounter with one, it is the only time they can do that. And in the vast skein of the narrative, it is not a huge deal.
The book recommends you hand out cyphers often to encourage your players to actively spend them. The rules look at cyphers more as one shot character abilities, instead of precious resources to be horded. Artifacts are also character abilities, but they will stick around, on average, a lot longer. One of the principles that the book discusses is why wait till higher levels to allow your players to teleport or destroy a city. With a cypher, they can get an epic feel, without you having to worry about it “derailing” your game.
Part 7: Running the Game
This might have been the best section of the book for me. I am a GM addict, I love running games. When I read a rulebook, I am always trying to read into how the write would run this game. Monte Cook says in a side bar “The chapters in this part of the book are as close as I can come to relating how I run my own games.” This is awesome! Hopefully someday I get to play in one of Monte’s games, because from the setting, rule, and advice he has given in this book, it sounds like it would be a wild ride.
He walks you through how to use the rules to craft enjoyable game experiences. He gives great advice on building and planning your game, running combats, and describing the world. And he finishes with some great advice for evoking the feel of the Ninth World. Also included is an example of play, where if I am not mistaken Monte sits down with the Justice League and plays a game of Numenera!
Part 8 Adventures
Numenera gives you four adventures of increasing exposure to the concepts of the game, both rules and setting, to ease players and GM’s into the game. I have read all four and run the first third of the Beale of Boregal for my players at the time of this post. I feel like the first adventure holds your hand as the GM, walking you through nice and easy, but each subsequent adventure gives you more and more freedom till you are immersed in the world and ready to tell your own stories.
Part 9: Back Matter
The last section of the book is filled with great reference sheets: character sheets, character creation walkthroughs, a great bibliography and index. But it also includes the backer list, which I am proud to have my name on.
The players in my gaming groups have heard me talk about this game for the last year. I was worried that I was getting too excited, setting myself up to be disappointed. But I have loved Monte’s work since the days of Planescape, and was very optimistic. He did not fail to deliver. Numenera is a fully realized game of the highest caliber. I am already planning to use it for my next pay to play event at my FLGS where I will run 8 – 12 players on a monthly adventure through the Ninth World. The PDF will be available through drivethrurpg.com here soon, and the main book will release at $59.99 MSRP at your FLGS.
Content: 5/5 – A fantastically written book and rule set
System: 5/5 – The system is streamlined and smooth. It feels familiar enough to enable gamers to pick up on it quickly, but seems to have the staying power for a long term game. Plus it is a fun game to GM.
Aesthetic: 5/5 – The book has a clean layout, great art and is easy to read.