So far I’ve read the Player’s Guide and skipped through the core book. I’m not sure whether I like Numenera or not.
The central mechanics are pretty cool:
The system requires only three dice: a d20, a d6, and a d100. (OK, a d100 is two dice unless one is brave/stupid enough to use a Zocchihedron.)
Every challenge – from combat to a steep climb to a seduction – has a Rating from 0 to 10. 0 is trivial, an automatic success; 10 is nigh-impossible. To beat a challenge, players must roll Rating x 3 on a d20. Note that a challenge rating higher than 6 will automatically fail.
Players can lower the challenge rating by applying skills, using equipment, activating special powers, or exerting Effort, which is a finite resource. Each level of skill (one or two) or point of Effort lowers the challenge rating one point. If the challenge rating is 0, players succeed automatically. A few items or abilities add +1 or +2 to the die roll; every +3 is equivalent to lowering the challenge rating.
A natural 19 produces a special success (if it’s a success) and a 20 even more so.
(17 and 18 also have special effects in combat.) A 1 means the GM can introduce an extra complication.
Notably, only players roll the d20. When an NPC attacks, players make a defense roll against the NPC’s attack Rating. For simplicity, most NPCs and monsters have a single Rating for attack, defense, and other abilities.
The d6 is used occasionally to generate random numbers: points healed, duration of an effect, etc.
The GM rolls a d100 to generate random events, only if he wants to.
Players gain XP for discovery and other story actions, or for letting the GM complicate their lives (a la FATE). They can spend XP to cancel a complication, re-roll the die, gain a specific or temporary advantage, and of course improve their characters.
That’s it for the basics. But how does a character gain skills, acquire powers, or exert Effort? What are the limits of each? What are “numenera”? That’s where the bulk of the system comes in, and it somewhat resembles a D&D class and level system. Essentially one chooses a “type” – glaive (enhanced fighter), nano (techno-wizard), or jack (rogues or glaive/nano hybrids) – plus two other elements that bring extra skills, options, powers, and limitations. Characters also have three ability pools – Might, Speed, and Intellect – with base values and free points depending on one’s type. Characters use up points from an appropriate pool to use fighting moves (glaives), esoteries (nanos), or tricks (jacks), or to expend Effort up to the limits of one’s Tier. Gaining a Tier opens up new skills, moves/esoteries/tricks, and other abilities. “Numenera” are essentially scavenged magi-tech items: artifacts, one-use cyphers (up to a maximum determined by type and Tier), or useless but interesting oddities.
The “central mechanics” are the selling point for me, while the Types, Tiers, Pools, Moves, Esoteries, Tricks, and so forth leave me cold. It’s like running hack-and-slash games in FATE, or writing a COBOL emulator in LISP, or house-ruling Go. Some gamers may like or need that extra layer of rules, powers, and toys. I, however, gravitate toward the “indie” philosophy of small, focused rule sets and “old school” styles where imaginative solutions trump lists of pre-defined abilities. (They’re not so incompatible.) If Monte Cook had stopped with the bullet-pointed list above, I’d be more than happy … but then he wouldn’t be able to sell a 400+ page book of rules and art, much less a multimedia franchise.
What were your thoughts about the setting itself?
Again I’m split. On the one hand, the idea of questing for runes, I mean numenera, answers the “what do players do” pretty neatly without “kill the monsters grab the loot”. Notably, numenera are “plot coupons”: dig up this old junk, maybe jerry-rig something to escape the current predicament, and haul the rest off to trade for shins, goods, and whuffie. The magi-tech setting also allows a mix of medieval fantasy, post-apocalypse, and science fiction. (Like Monte Cook I’m also a fan of The Book of the New Sun; I tend more toward Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure and other sword-and-planet series than the Dying Earth, though.)
On the other hand, hundreds of pages of detailed setting made my eyes glaze over. I would have preferred a few pages of adventure seeds, micro-settings, and random weirdness tables. Also, the amount of invented lingo seems hokey, verging on “Call A Rabbit a Smeerp”.
Despite my cynical review, I ended up playing a lot of Numenera (mostly first edition, a little of the second) and its successor systems The Strange and The Cypher System Rulebook. That’s what that gaming group mostly played.
That said, I still stand by most of this “quasi-review”.
Details of the
classes types, levels tiers, and other mechanics
that took up the majority of player-facing rules felt somewhat arbitrary.
Even the Cypher System Rulebook, which presented itself as a toolkit,
allowed substitutions for various options one could take at each tier
but without a sense as to why those substitutions and no other.
Much like D&D’s 4th edition (ouch), there’s a sense of underlying
patterns not explained and general principles concealed from us mere players,
and as someone who likes to tinker with RPGs (or tear them apart)
that doesn’t sit well with me.
all Cypher’s mechanics to lower difficulty numbers or invoke special rules
feel like a
that keeps players occupied and distracted.
In contrast, the GM need only make up a single number off the top of their head
and then roll some random tables for loot.
Not that older systems that pushed work onto the GM were necessarily better,
but a lot of the work that Cypher players do feels, well, unnecessary.
Don’t get me wrong: Numenera and Cypher System Rulebook are eminently playable.1 But having played (or at least read) a bunch of systems I’d assert you can still have entertaining adventures in which players and GMs play by the same simple, straightforward rules, character sheets fit on a 3x5' index card (or smaller), and nobody has to buy multiple $50+ tomes to get the “full rules”.2
I’d give The Strange a miss. Its mechanic of changing all PCs Focuses for every new world they found themselves in was kind of a pain. Most of the cross-genre lessons from The Strange ended up in the CSR. ↩︎
Seriously, here’s an ultra-condensed derivative of Traveller on a double-sided sheet of paper, for free. Want post-apocalyptic or sword and sorcery extensions? They’re $3 apiece. ↩︎