Numenera Stream-of-Consciousness Quasi-Review

2013-12-28

Modified 2021-05-19

(approx. 1200 words)

This post originally appeared on the Pen and Paper Games Forum. Only some markup (markdown) has changed.

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:

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.

Comments (2013-12-28)

Farcaster writes:

What were your thoughts about the setting itself?

fmitchell writes

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”.


Postscript (2021-05-19)

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. And honestly, all Cypher’s mechanics to lower difficulty numbers or invoke special rules feel like a busy box 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


  1. 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. ↩︎

  2. 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. ↩︎