They say there have been eight worlds before ours…
“This is part of an ongoing series in which I opine about modern tabletop RPGs. Today, I’m going to talk about Numenera by Monte Cook Games. Numenera is one of a few settings for the Cypher system, along with The Strange (about shifting realities), Invisible Sun (about magicians in a surreal world), and No Thank You Evil! (an RPG designed for children.)”
About The Game
They say there have been eight worlds before ours. Eight times the people of this Earth, over vast millennia, built their civilizations, reaching heights we cannot even fully imagine now. They spoke to the stars, reshaped the creatures of the world, and mastered form and essence. They built cities and machines that have since crumbled to dust, leaving only their barest remnants.
This is the Ninth World. The people of the prior worlds are gone–scattered, disappeared, or transcended. But their works remain, in the places and devices that still contain some germ of their original function. The ignorant call these magic, but the wise know that these are our legacy. They are our future.
They are the Numenâera. Set a billion years in our future, Numenâera is a tabletop roleplaying game about exploration and discovery. The people of the Ninth World suffer through a dark age, an era of isolation and struggle in the shadow of the ancient wonders crafted by civilizations millennia gone. But discovery awaits for those brave enough to seek out the works of the prior worlds. Those who can uncover and master the numenera can unlock the powers and abilities of the ancients, and perhaps bring new light to a struggling world.
“They say there have been eight worlds before ours. Eight times the people of this planet, over vast millennia, built their civilizations, reaching heights we cannot even fully imagine now. They spoke to the stars, reshaped the creatures of the world, and mastered form and essence. They built cities and machines that have since crumbled to dust, leaving only their barest remnants.”
by Monte Cook Games
This is part of an ongoing series in which I opine about modern tabletop RPGs. Today, I’m going to talk about Numenera by Monte Cook Games. Numenera is one of a few settings for the Cypher system, along with The Strange (about shifting realities), Invisible Sun (about magicians in a surreal world), and No Thank You Evil! (an RPG designed for children.)
Numenera is an RPG set billions of years in the future. Civilizations, not just of humanity, but aliens, mutants, and beings from other dimensions, have all risen and collapsed in the interim. To most people who live in this setting, the world seems like a fantasy world—ancient ruins, strange monsters, mystical powers. But all of those powers are based on technologies that those people simply don’t understand.
In addition to a home campaign, I ran Numenera one-shots a few times with strangers for charity. Each time the system worked its wonders. It does those quick, intense one-shots really well, and even though none of my players at those charity events had played it before, they all picked up the system quickly.
Numenera’s character creation is one of the more enjoyable ones. You pick three separate aspects to your character and mash them together. Your character is an Adjective Noun who Verbs. A few examples include a Tough Glaive Who Entertains, or a Strong-Willed Nano Who Murders, a Perceptive Jack Who Rides the Lightning, or a Craven Wright who Works Miracles.
The adjectives—strong-willed, tough, strong, perceptive, and dozens of others—sometimes give bonuses to your pools, sometimes grant you different skills, and sometimes give you other advantages. These are granted at character creation but don`t improve or change throughout the game.
The nouns are your character class. I had first edition, which only included the Glaive (Fighter) Nano (Wizard-scientist) and Jack (Jack of all trades). Second edition brought in the Arkus, who’s the social character of the group, the Wright, who crafts objects, and the Delve, who’s the explorer. These classes have slightly different starting pools and edges, but their main difference is their list of class abilities. The Glaive would gain bonuses to combat, defense, or physical exertions. The Jack would have some exploration-based abilities, some that help with skills, some that help with combat, and so on.
But the key to the system was the Focus, or the ‘verb’ part of the statement. Each focus was essentially that character’s superpower. Some could phase through solid matter, or use electricity, fire, or ice. Some had gravity control and could fly. Some had telepathy or telekinesis. There were enough options that a group could play a dozen campaigns without using the same focus twice. These abilities start weak but as you gain tiers they improve.
There are three pools: Might, Speed, and Intellect. These operate closest to the hit points of Dungeons and Dragons, but are in three separate groups, and power your special abilities and your willingness to exert yourself. If you’re hit by an enemy, odds are good it’ll come off your speed pool. If you take environmental damage like fire or disease, you’ll lose might. And if you get hit by a psychic attack, you’ll lose intellect.
While Numenera is an easy game to learn the rules of, the interaction of the pools with effort and edge is definitely the area that my players needed the most focus on. Your can spend your pools to use special abilities. You can also use your pools to make a task more likely to succeed (this is Effort.). However, if you do this too often, you run out of your pools, which also double as your hit points. Edge reduces this. If telekinesis used 2 Intellect points but you had 1 Edge, you would only spend 1 Intellect point. If you had 2 Edge, it would be free.
In addition to the foci there are two other rules that make this system tick along beautifully—Cyphers and Intrusions.
Cyphers are one-use high-tech gizmos. They can be anything from heat-seeking missiles to worms that coat your body in armor to the telepathic certainty that someone is helping you, giving you a bonus to your skill checks. Characters can only have a few at a time, but new ones are always supposed to be found, which is intended to prevent hoarding and encourage experimentation.
The other rule that made this system sing are GM Intrusions. These allow the GM to ask “Would you like an XP?” and if the player accepts, the GM has free rein to mess with that player. As a GM, you’re supposed to at least offer one per player per game. These can be everything from ‘the rope you’re climbing with snaps’ to ‘the tunnel you came through collapses’ or ‘the scary monster thinks you’re its baby and is taking you back to its nest.’ You also get to do this every time a player rolls a 1, without giving an XP.
Leveling up happens constantly. Every time a player gets 4XP they can purchase a new skill, put points into their pools, or bump up their Edge or Effort by 1. Once all four of those are purchased, the player goes up to the next tier. There are only six tiers, so a weekly game could complete in about half a year.
The system is designed so the GM doesn’t roll at all. In combat, the players roll attacks and defense—Might Defense, usually in case of poison, disease, or an environmental hazard, Speed Defense for most attacks, and Intellect Defense against psionics.
All monsters and skill checks are based on a 1-10 system. Once your number is picked, multiply it by 3. A Tier 4 monster would require a 12 on a roll of a d20 to hit, and also a 12 to dodge its attack. If its attack had poison it would be a 12 Might Defense to resist it. If it had stealth, it would require a 12 on Perception to spot it. Likewise, a Tier 8 monster would require a 24 on a roll of a d20…so you’d need to have bonuses and effort ready to hit it. This makes the GMs job quite easy when running combat.
“Set a billion years in our future, Numenera is a tabletop roleplaying game about exploration and discovery. The people of the Ninth World suffer through a dark age, an era of isolation and struggle in the shadow of the ancient wonders crafted by civilizations millennia gone. But discovery awaits those brave enough to seek out the works of the prior worlds. Those who can uncover and master the numenera can unlock the powers and abilities of the ancients, and perhaps bring new light to a struggling world.― “
There are a couple negatives to the system. First, many powers have the limitations of their abilities left somewhat vague and up to the GM. Second, there isn’t a ton of balance between different foci. The last one is common to a lot of RPGs—once you get to a certain level, dealing with nearly any threat is absurdly easy. But my players definitely enjoyed it from start to finish.
If your players are interested in a somewhat odder setting, with a superheroic feel to it, I definitely recommend Numenera. It’s not perfect, but it has a lot of very, very good ideas within it.
I’m funnier without context.
Okay, you want context.
I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
I’m unconundrum on reddit.