Design Review of Numenera: A Wondrous Core with Lackluster Execution

Numenera, published in 2013 by Monte Cook Games, is a game set in the far future: a billion years at that. The setting is referred to as the Ninth World; as eight prior inter-galactic, inter-dimensional civilizations have come and gone before the setting takes place. “Humans” (or what appears to be relatively similar to humans) have emerged from the ruins of the last civilization and have built a pseudo-feudal society on its remnants. The remnant technology, called Numenera, is revered and cobble it together to create the society that exists now. Numenera is so advanced that it is considered to be magic to the largely illiterate population. The Steadfast are the 12 main nations of “humans” and other species call civilization  and the Beyond is the rest of the world outside of the Steadfast. The Beyond is a mysterious place: full of terrifying threats and wonders to be found. There are weird abilities derived from strange technology, cults that worship beings associated with that technology, cities built around advanced devices (like terraformers or water-purifiers), and exploration of long forgotten places to get said Numenera.

Numenera’s tone is some mix of Conan,  Dune, and Adventure Time. It is a surreal and random landscape of hodge podge civilization junk reminiscent filled with Thundar the Barbarian-like McyGygvers who rig said junk in order to gain wealth and fame in their respective countries.

The setting’s premise is perhaps on the greatest I have ever heard: at least for roleplaying in Science Fiction. It allows for every kind of technology and existential question to be asked freely in a game without need of contrivance. It leaves open many inherent mysteries entire campaigns can be based around.

  • Why is the moon still close to the Earth even when it should have drifted off millions of years ago?
  • Why didn’t the sun swallow the Earth when it became a supergiant?
  • Why have humans suddenly returned when they would have gone extinct?

All of these questions and more allow for the science fiction premise to fill a player’s and GM’s mind with wonder as much as any fantasy setting. Simply put, the idea is to just go far enough into the future where anything could be possible. These kinds of questions that beg exploration; exploration, as we will get into in just a second, happens to be the very core of the game.

Core Mechanic

Numenera’s system (now called the Cypher System) is a simple D20 roll. Players have three pools of points that function also as their health: Might, Speed, and Intellect. All rolls are the GameMaster setting a Difficulty from 1-10 to a roll and that number corresponding to a Target Number (TN) of that difficulty times 3. A difficulty of 2 is requires a 6 to be rolled on the D20 to pass and likewise a difficulty of 10 requires a roll of 30. But how do you spend get a 30 on a twenty sided die? The players spend points (called exerting effort) to lower the Target Numbers by 3 per level of effort applied. Spending 9 points can lower that 30 to a 23. You merely spend points from the corresponding pools. Might is used for melee, resisting disease, and for feats of strength. Speed is for ranged attacks, initiative, and dodging. Intellect is for intrigue, science, knowledge checks, and mystic abilities. Intellect and Speed each have their own consistent utility; Might tends to be useful for two handed weapon wielders and martial arts styled characters and little else.

Numenera can be summarized as players spending their health to lower Target Numbers. An implication of this is that the GM never rolls dice. Players dodging an enemy attack? Player rolls. Exploration? Player rolls. Attempting to disguise themselves as the Amber Pope? Player rolls. Everything is built on that. Players have edges which reduce the amount of points that have to spend to apply effort. Some abilities merely require points of a pool spent to activate. Skills, in Numenera, are passive effects that lower the difficulty of certain tasks by one. A thing to note about Numenera is that its skill system is very open ended: meaning that a skill is whatever the players/GM call a skill and that a skill can be as focused as dog taming and as broad as “pleasant social interactions.”


Character creation consists of a phrase: a descriptor type who focuses. The phrase is meant to summarize what a character is about. A stealthy Nano who hunts with great skill is very different from a Doomed Jack who wears a sheen of ice.

Types are the easiest thing to understand as they are effectively just classes in other roleplaying games. The three types (Jack, Nano, and Glaive) give you your starting pools, edges, and a list of abilities to choose from as you go up in tiers (levels). Nanos are mystics/researchers who are able to identify and discern uses of Numenera. Glaives are combat characters. Jacks are supposed the skilled in-betweens of the Glaive and the Nano. Jacks end up being an uninteresting type without any roles. They do have that issue resolved in a later supplement, Character Options 1, where they receive abilities that make it the common Rogue archetype for the setting. Otherwise, Jacks are merely generalists.

Descriptors are brief character descriptions that either add to your pools or give you skills. They are also the only thing to give player characters a weakness; often making a single skill or type of activity one level more difficult (quite a few resort to making socializing more difficult). Descriptors are generally basic descriptions that bare little insight into the character or background of the PC such as stealthy, or spiritual. It rather just describes a general skill set of the character.

Focuses are supposed to the defining factor of your character; they are the “one special talent” that set a PC above the common man. Focuses include Commands Mental Powers, Wears a Sheen of Ice, Wears a Halo of Fire, Works Miracles, or Leads. Focuses are meant to define the character; it effectively functions as their super power. The focuses effectively make all characters a bunch of X-Men wondering around Ninth World. Most focuses tend to be pretty basic and uninteresting for the first two tiers. They do pick up as players become interesting around tier 2 and tier 3 depending. There is something to be said though for a wielder of flames who can only project a coat of them around themself, for a were-person to not be able to control their transformation at all, and for non-power oriented focuses to merely make a person skilled in their given field. A character will not “feel”  like their full concept until around Tier 3.

Many focuses are also passive: giving skills and armor type abilities. For the same reason why people prefer protagonist’s in fiction that actively pursue goals outside of the plot, players feel greater connection to their characters when their unique abilities give them (as players) decisions and abilities to express themselves with. Focuses being the defining “one special thing” of a character shouldn’t be something the GM gives a target number to use or something that makes something one level easier to do x type of activity. A lot of focuses don’t see use at the table for simply being boring. Focuses are probably the biggest disappointment of character creation: they neither give players their character concept to roleplay and, in many cases, don’t even offer the creative opportunities worth their highlight in character creation.


Characters receive Experience (xp) in one of two ways: GM Intrusions and Discovery. GM intrusions are a “the GM has an excuse to do something bad in exchange for giving you an xp” mechanic; players have the option to veto an Intrusion by paying xp. This mechanic mainly serves as a means of giving the GM more control and making consequence more palatable to players by bribing them. As for discovery, a single major discovery such as learning a secret or finding a new piece of lost technology means a single xp.

A character advances by increase their edges (reduction of point cost for applying effort), effort (maximum amount of effort you can apply), gaining skills, and adding more points to their pools. Characters advance up 6 tiers that each give them two more abilities from their type and a new feature from their focus. Their power levels tend to range from a barely competent in Tier 1 to difficult to challenge demi-gods around Tier 5.

XP in Numenera, unlike others games, is a currency rather than just a meter to advancement. Larger steps of character advancement is 4 xp, longer term situational benefits (such as a large sum of currency) are 3 xp, and 1 xp can be spent for a single reroll of a d20. This allows Experience create an economy of discovery. Experience itself is a resource that can be gained from Discovery and invested in various ways towards discovery. This is the second half to what makes Numenera different from other games.

Economy of Discovery

The cypher system is  an evolution of what many D&D GMs have done for years:  lowering Target Numbers rather than giving bonuses to save mental energy and time. The combination of having health being spent to lower TNs and having experience being spent for long term and short term benefits creates a dynamic that makes Numenera the ONLY game geared for and capable of supporting discovery as a core gameplay in roleplaying games. This is a legitimate reason for many people to overlook its faults; it accomplishes a type of engagement absent from both tabletop and even in a lot of modern Science Fiction at large. The core gameplay of Numenera contextualizes every roll into a matter of short vs long term decision making. “Do I lower my health to get a better chance on this task?” is the question a player asks themselves; meaning they are always in their character’s shoes of deciding how that roll will impact the rest of their decisions on their expeditions. In addition, xp becomes a reward system that continues the option of long term and short term investments: A player may ask, “Do I save up for an ability that may be useful for what is going on or trying to use a few rerolls to get ahead in this challenge?” This creates a feedback loop in which players makes long vs short term decisions to find lost technology that gives you xp to make more short term vs long term decisions regarding that xp.

The greatest thing is part of this dynamic is that discovery is already what characters are undertaking in order to survive. Characters are making short-vs-long terms decisions for their journeys to experience technology to reclaim for their society and players likewise are making short-vs-long term decisions for their journeys in order to gain xp and artifacts to reclaim for their character’s decisions in society. This means the core mechanics invokes a sense discovery and expedition since the character’s experience and the player’s mindset match. Whether intentional or a happy accident, Numenera is one of the few games where a core mechanic places the players in the character’s shoes. In my opinion, this should very well be the goal of every roleplaying game.


Cyphers are by far the part of the system that tie everything together. Numenera is divided into artifacts (permanent technology until breaks), oddities (weird tech with no practical application) and cyphers. Cyphers are one-use contraptions cobbled together from the remaining technology available. This is where the flavor and the mechanics really meet. Your intrepid adventurers will be gathering a number of cyphers, discovering their uses, and risking everything on their use. Cyphers, like everything else in the game, have levels for their discovery and use. The level of the cypher can correspond to extra range on its effect, duration, or damage output. Cyphers are the most mechanically heavy part of the game. There is a treasure trove of them in the corebook and many more in supplements. Although, once you have read enough of them; it is very simple to make your own. The beauty of cyphers in this setting is that not only do they give you sense that characters are really MacGeyvers of lost technology, but as a gameplay element, they give players constantly changing abilities for tackling situations.  With how fleshed out cyphers are and with how lackluster character abilities are, I have a suspicion that the original intention of the game assumed players would  have an over-pouring stream of cypher abilities that the character options were to be a tertiary focus. The only real complaint I could launch about the cypher mechanic is that each type has a limit for how many cyphers they can carry and very little, real explanation as to what happens when its exceeded. There is a short section of advice that mentions things such as radiation, but, in general, GMs are left to come up with contrivances to justify this rule or ignore it altogether.

The Ninth World

The Ninth world itself itself, as far as worldbuilding goes, is a very bare bones take on its own concept. The poorest element of the setting is how it can, in one page, make a huge deal out of a massive “pillar” (world-defining factor) only to never do anything with it in other parts of the setting. There is a datasphere of satellites that bears the Internet of multiple galactic civilizations. There is a regular weather pattern of nano-swarms turning the face of the Ninth World into Lovecraftian, warped versions of its former self. This potentially Iconic weather pattern even has an iconic label:  Ironwind. You mean to tell me no town’s or nations history was shaped by this wind? No groups of people studying it or trying to overcome? No NPCs that you littered the book with who lost a family member to this phenomena? Not a single player character option tied to it: at all?! Its the phenomena that the founder of The Order of Truth was inspired by; you know that world religion that acts as the only unifying force of the Steadfast? They haven’t done anything else to it or have more culture surrounding it? Really?

To the Ninth World’s credit, it is filled with interesting plothooks. There are organizations that want to take down all governments, giant machines responsible for the water supply of an area, and vast mountain expanse littered with cults and dangers. The issue with the setting is that it makes minimal an effort was put into the world that glaring world-defining factors are just there then apparently affect nothing else. The Ninth World Guidebook and other expansions alleviate this issue to an extent; but put it behind a pay wall. In fact, it feels like a lot of the expansion books are filling in oversights of the corebook rather than filling out any actual additional, meaningful content. This is not 100% the case (as in with Character Options 2 and Into the Night books), but on the whole there is a sense that the Numenera Corebook (of which this review primarily focuses on) was only 3/4ths of the way comlete. It feels released in installments to be completed afterwards (for full price for those books that complete it. That feeling of incompleteness wouldn’t be the case with so many blatant oversights in its design.


Numenera is fantastic concept with a core system perfect for that concept; where it falls is in how grossly incomplete that concept is built off of. The emphasis on cyphers to somehow make up for a lack of quality in its character creation/character abilities what I think hurts it the most when trying to recommend it to people looking for a long-term game. At around the time it came out, I was able to buy it for roughly $30 USD (25.50 Euro). I could happily recommend it at this price; but with a current price of 60 dollars; a game should be worth more than a single campaign attempt with at this price. Numenera is not. The game, as it stands, requires either multiple supplements or a lot of work on the GM’s part in order to make this game one wishing to engage in the core concept to run multiple campaigns in. The player options (focuses and descriptors especially) are uninteresting and do very little to root characters to the setting. There great ideas for characters there, but the system does nothing to bring those ideas to life. Keeping player interest after their first or 2nd attempt (even your own as a GM) into the Ninth world is difficult. It is a game that I can say had the basics there to be one of the greatest roleplaying games in existence; its just grossly incomplete in several areas.

It is great for groups looking for a novelty or a single campaign in something different. It will support that and you won’t notice some of these faults I am talking of until after the first time you hit Tier 3 or 4.  I would recommend purchasing the PDF or buying the book used if that’s the case. The price I would put the game as being worth is around 30-40 dollars.

Anyone who is looking for a core game to run multiple campaigns in without supplementation, especially science fiction; I would recommend highly to look for other games. You, like me, may find yourself very disappointed. The money is better spent on something like Mongoose Traveler, Mindjammer, Alternity, Fragged Empire, Mutant Year Zero, or other roleplaying games that are firmer in their concepts.

The game is easy to run, story oriented, filled with great adventure ideas, and core mechanic does make exploration a very prominent feature of the play experience. For many, these factors are enough to warrant spending the entry fee on; as it does have the tools that most GMs could craft a good experience out of.

From a design perspective, the system doesn’t bother addressing some of the most basic of techniques to craft that experience it touts. There is a severe lack in its contribution or effort in many (not all) character options. The design work is left for the GMs; work that could be done without the need of spending a full 60 dollar price tag on it. While the supplements do address these concerns, there will be plenty who would be wiser not spending the money on the books to get the experience they want.

It is a game that could be great in a 2nd edition, but merely decent as it stands. Its an enjoyable single campaign and a genuine novelty in the hobby. Due to a few blatant oversights in its design, it remains a game that does little work for the price it asks and restricts its own market value by depending on supplements to address those oversights.


Current Price: $60

Reviewer’s Appraisal: $35


  • GM never rolls dice
  • Only RPG on market that executes exploration as a core gameplay element
  • Setting full of plothooks for adventures
  • A world you plug anything into
  • A genuinely unique experience
  • Capable of invoking wonder
  • Cyphers are thematic and keep gameplay varied and interesting
  • Character creation is very fast


  • Relatively simple system; negative for those looking for crunch
  • Character creation does almost nothing to ground characters to the setting
  • It puts extra work on GM’s explain the tone and setting to the players
  • Many abilities are often open for GM discretion and take player agency away from their own characters in game that is supposed to be player facing
  • Characters (focuses) often don’t really feel like their concept until around Tier 3
  • Lackluster worldbuilding that overlooks huge sections of world-defining factors and doesn’t expand on the relationships of the various factions it presents
  • Due to passive character abilities, the game is very much dependent on cyphers to keep things interesting
  • Might is severely less interesting to other two statistics; there really isn’t an excuse to not balance three stats.
  • Jack remains uninteresting without expansions
  • Character options tend to be combat focused in a  game primarily about exploration

Recommended for: 

  • Groups who are looking to have a single campaign in a Science Fiction setting they don’t mind not coming back to
  • A person in love with the concept and has the extra money throw out on some expansions
  • Groups looking for something different and prefer simple, narrative systems

Warning for: 

  • People who prefer satisfying combat systems and balance
  • GMs looking for a primary game to run multiple campaigns in without needing to buy multiple sourcebooks
  • Fans of Science Fiction wanting a Science Fiction RPG comparable to other options on the market.



Mecha[nomics] Part 1: Defining Gameplay & Its Components for Video Games

How do you define gameplay? To elaborate: how do you identify it, break it down to parts, and describe its qualities? While you can identify mechanics (running and gunning, jumping and moving, pointing and clicking), these things do not describe the play.

“But I thought those things are play because they are what I am doing!” you may say.

But is the physical act of running “play?” Not in and of itself.

“Well then, it’s running carefree through a field with thousands of puppies,” A gamer may gesture ironically.

Well, not quite either. In a general sense, games can modeled in the MDA format (Hunicke, 2004): Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.  The “carefree” feeling you would be describing would be an Aesthetic (they are also called Engagements or Motivations). The “carefree” aspect, the levity of the experience, isn’t necessarily the play;  the levity is reason why you come to the play. If there was a game about simulating running through a field with a thousand puppies and it added more kinds of puppies as you did creative leaps and bounds through grass, still the levity of the experience is only the emotion that makes the experience enjoyable. It didn’t change and is therefore not the play, but the aesthetic of the act.

So the question remains: What is actually happening in games that are actually “play?”

Gameplay (or the dynamics) are the cognitive participation  of an individual experience when interacting with mechanics.

So to summarize how this new way of seeing dynamics fits in the classic MDA model of game design:

Mechanics (system of interactions)

Dynamics (cognitive participation in interaction)

Aesthetics (emotional/psychological state achieved by interactions)

So before we can characterize one type of play from another, we must understand that we are categorizing types of “mental activity” and not types of tactile interactions (which are the mechanics). We must also understand that the mental activities (like how the mechanics builds dynamics) work to create the aesthetic we go for in a game.

“So, we know what dynamics are. So what categories could possibly tell between kinds of ‘mental activity’ from another?”

Well I propose, there are really three kinds of mental participation in games: Problems, Choices, and Tests. It really isn’t complex at all. Problems, being situations with obvious ideal conclusions the player works to reach. Choices are the acts of forgoing options for other options which are not better from one another. Tests are the requirements of focus and timing to perform a developed task with degrees of success.

It is pretty intuitive. All games are decisions being made, problems being solved, and tests being overcome.

In basketball, who to pass to is a decision, how to get a the past the person blocking me is a problem, and how accurate I am at passing or making a throw is a test of skill. In the aforementioned hypothetical puppy-field stampede game,  the actual gameplay (dynamics) are the decisions you were making in terms of how fast to run, what kind of leaping and bounding you want to do, and when/where you wanted to go in said puppy-ridden field. In that game, you are rewarded merely for making the decisions you want and you are rewarded with the pleasure of cute puppies, sunshine, and the audaciousness of the whole ordeal. It is a similar reason why Flower is a video game. You are rewarded for pure, unhindered decisions of preference with art and sound that are associated with the levity you participating in the act in order to have. No bad consequences. No wrong answers. Just sense pleasure with care-free decisions. So the mechanics of getting more puppies or flowers when traversing the field in anyway you wish (mechanics) grants you rewarded, care-free decisions (dynamics) which creates a feeling of levity (aesthetics).

“So why would this matter?”

Because when you wish to understand what makes an experience enjoyable in your games, you want to be able articulate what kinds of gameplay really make that experience for you. For example, two people will disagree that a game isn’t very good. One feels that fighting games are lame.


Because, he feels they don’t give you meaningful decisions. While another loves certain fighting games.


Because, she adores the execution barrier and feels incredibly skillful when performing certain combos. Now, both of these players could a state a particular fighting game is “good” or “bad;” but, the reality is that they merely were looking a type of gameplay (dynamics) they associate with the engagement they are after.

 The boy, may want to make long term decisions in hypothetical situations. A fighting game may have a few of those if he is at the utmost top of a competitive scene and looses a match that would affect his “career” as a fighting game enthusiast. But, ultimately it isn’t the decisions are still tied to every single match and so he doesn’t feel they are long term enough and associated with characters he finds empathetic to be what he wants. The girl may like fighting games with steep execution barriers and cares little about actually winning, but merely plays for those few moments when she pulls of that one combo. By understanding types of decisions, problems, and tests, you will understand the differences between the experiences games of the same genre offer you and be able to articulate what you really want from those games.

This is what what I am calling, Mechanomics. It is a term already used in biology. It refers to discerning the purpose of a structure. Mechanomics in gaming is understanding HOW a rule system creates the mental participations you want in players; finding purpose for an mechanical system.

A shooting game may offer greater reward or challenge to assessing situations, out-thinking your opponent, or maybe just reaction time. Which brings up the simplest sub-category of dynamics: types of tests. A test is nominally defined by what tactile or mental skill it challenges. Most games skills can be simplified to recognizing feedback, memorization of important systems, reactions, situation assessment, habituating tactile input, recall of relevant information, opponent profiling, pattern recognition, adapting to situations, perseverance of performance, and self-adjustment.

“That’s a lot of big words. What do those mean? That was too long. I skimmed it.”

I don’t blame you. How about a summary? In short, it just means tests in video games challenge the players ability to form, break, and manage various habits, situations, information and responses. So a basic multiplayer deathmatch of Call of Duty can be broken down to a few core skills:

  1. Memorization of map spawns and paths
  2. Twitch reaction of aiming, pressing fire, and then reloading when motion indicating an enemy comes to view
  3. Basic knowledge of what general paths and loads work at higher skill levels.
  4. Assessing where your opponent is most likely based on mini map indications, sounds, and spawns.
  5. Habituation of running safer paths when knowing where your opponent is.

Most of these skills are memorization and/or habituation (training your hands to them automatically). It is a matter of: there is a clear way to things and it is simply a matter of who performs that role faster and more consistently. A multiplayer team deathmatch is very similar to football in that there are very few decisions and problems to be made/solved by an individual player, merely a basic knowledge pool of things to know and a small set of tasks to perform. A Pro-level gamer of a modern military shooter is good at twitch reaction and spatial awareness. Gamers with military shooters,  as one experiment phrased it, have more “enhanced perceptual templates” (Bejjanki, et al.). These skills are the things that determines the victor in a given match. Similar in Football, the teams with more players that are better at doing their one specific job in a specific play will be the one that ends up winning.

Its interesting how differing gamers’ tastes are. Some will be offended by the last paragraph because they can see it as me calling Modern Military Shooters as dumb for not having tactical decisions or problem solving. Other gamers will be equally offended because they can say I am praising Modern Military Shooters for being matters a context of pure skill.

But does that mean that Modern Military Shooter multiplayer lack strategic depth?

To some extent, Yes. MMS Deathmatch of pure skill: the game is a test rather than a problems or decisions.

Testing a skill set is not the same thing as finding an optimal outcome. So problems, are not a matter acting per say. Problem solving can be a skill to test, but problems themselves when it game does not reward or punish based on how efficient or quick you are at solving problems (or puzzles), are then a type of mental participation unto themselves. The goal of problems is to find an ideal solution out of the possibilities presented.

“So how do you categorize problems?”

Simple, by how they can be solved.


Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, though with many experimental discrepancies, does define intelligence in terms of how problems are solved, even breaking it down to various mental tasks. While maybe not the best definition of intelligence, it does offer insight as to what mental activity goes on in order to solve problems. The three types of intelligence in theory (Contextual, Creative, and Analytical) can be very easily translated into three processes we use to solve tasks. Contextual Intelligence, thought of as the process of Contextual Assessment.  Creative Intelligence can be thought of as the process of Creative Frameworking, when looking at it in the context of problem solving. Analytical inquiry is, of course, the process to explain Analytical Intelligence. Ok, so that may seem confusing. Basically, I claim you can break down problems into three kinds of thinking your brain can use to solve it. These being:

  • Contextual Assessmenttaking note what you are able to do, what needs to be done, and chunking it into a manageable process. Think about a section in a platformer or metroidvania game (like Crash Bandicoot, Mario Galaxy, or Guacamelee) where there is a huge section that if you fall will take you back a long ways. There is a long succession of things to navigate with jumps at specific timings, so you think about the track in sections: these first three platforms are all similar and then I need to jump a little later for the next and then keep the same timing for the next next two and so on. You are looking at your tools (the timings of your jumps) and your task (the section of platforming) and making a clear, manageable from point a to b path. Since most platformers with extensive sections have only one path, these kinds of games tend to lend themselves to this kind of problem solving.
  • Creative Frameworkingseeing how your current problem relates to other problems and going through all the possibilities in your head so as to find a solution that will work. An example of this would figuring how to move on in a point and click game. So you need to get in a tower and you spends quite a few minutes thinking over the places you’ve been and thinking how this getting into this tower fits into the story/world you are thinking of and thus what would be generally the logical kind of item associated with this situation in the context of the world. You think through every item you have, what you could do with them, and every possible area where there was something you missed. That is creative frameworking! Point and Click or games with a lot of emergent properties like Scribblenaughts or classic Point-n-Clicks give themselves to this kind of problem solving.
  • Analytical Inquirytaking note of all aspects of the problem, organizing them into understandable categories, and making deductions/inductions accordingly. Think of murder mysteries, Sudoku, or Puzzle platfomers, like Portal. You are taking general facts of what works and how the game works and apply logic to what the exact course of action is. Finding that primary optimal strategy in order to achieve the result set before you. Knowing a means b and c, so if I d (since it causes a but prevent c), then I can just get c (which is what I need). Any game with one solution that requires piecing together parts in order for that solution to occur is giving you that kind of problem to solve.

Problems can be categorized what problem solving process(es) it lends itself to. It might mean one is the most efficient or two are equal or all are the same. It can also mean that none of the problem solving processes work except one. A single problem can lend itself to one or more of the methods to varying degrees of which one is more suitable to the problem; giving a total 25 combinations for problems in how they favor certain problem solving types, if you are theoretical enough to want to think about it that way. Although, it is good enough to just characterize each individual problems as just generally lending itself to one, two, or all of a particular type. So you can say, a problem requires more Creative frameworking or can be just as easily solved with either Analytical Inquiry or Contextual Assessment.

Decisions are a lot harder to categorize, because it’s hard to boil down exactly what all types exist. But, you can say there definitely general types of decisions. A few are risk/reward, personal preference,  short term vs long term, advantage trade-off, lesser-of-two-evils, and hypothesis. Risk/reward can include anything from not wanting to continue into the mission with your strongest Fire Emblem character at such low hp to putting yourself in a vulnerable space in a fighter to get a better chance to get a combo in at your opponent. Personal Preference can be just choosing what colors you want your armor on an MMO to be. Advantage Trade off could be giving up some your units in an RTS to lure your opponents into a less favorable position on the terrain. Lesser-of-two-evils is like choosing who lives or dies in a cut-scene of a Post-apocalyptic RPG. Hypothesis is planning an action based on an uncertain interpretation of a situation, like most dialogue choices. Decisions can be be further characterized by what impact they have: long-term, immediate, short term, affecting your character, affecting the gameplay, affecting other players, affecting other characters. Decisions deserve entire articles unto themselves, but these example should hopefully supply a brief basis to start thinking about them.

By breaking down gameplay into types of problems, decisions, and tests; you are able to characterize what parts of a game experience you enjoy and can understand how they form the engagement they do. These are merely the building blocks that make up dynamics. The “Mechanomics” series is about creating this model and applying to various games.

Bejjeaki, Vikranth, et al. (2014) Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,  111 (47), 16961–16966. Retrieved from
Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research . In McCormik Northwestern Engineering: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. Retrieved from
Sternberg, R.J. (1985) Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.  

On Magic Systems & How to Make Them Decently

“If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, magic is cool. But a nervous mother singing to her child at night while something moves quietly through the dark outside her house? That’s a story. Handled properly, it’s more dramatic than any apocalypse or goblin army could ever be.”

-Patrick Rothfuss, Author of Name of the Wind & The Wise Man’s Fear (Alan 2011)

When Magic Is More Than Dressing

Magic Systems are the very thing that makes fantasy worlds unique to other genres. Regardless if in video games, novels, or roleplaying games; fantasy is defined by the presence of metaphysical principles different from our own. While it can be easy to look at magic as a source of spectacle ( a kind of glittering coat of paint to drizzle onto the story for flavoring); in doing so, many works have lost the potential magic systems offer. Magic systems allow for unique relationships between characters and create original plot points that only work within that world. Magic should not be a tagged on aspect to a story or roleplaying game. In fantasy, the magic system is the lifeblood that creates a unique framing of that world. Magic can be flavorful and it can be a tacked on, listless part of a world. The latter  is a tragedy in my opinion by virtue of not making full use of the genre. So what is the difference? Let’s take a quick look at magic systems (rather than just magic) have done for various series.

  • Horcruxes & Patronas. In The Harry Potter Series,  by J. K. Rowling, immortality is a pursuit by many wizards as  the afterlife is still a mystery even to Wizards and Witches. From the first book, the pursuit of immortality through ghosts and even the philosopher’s stone is shone to be a major pursuit for those  willing to delve into secretive and dangerous magics. Even the benign philosopher stone has to be hidden away as it attracts unwanted attention. It is in this pursuit of immortality that the main antagonist of the series developed Horcruxes.  Horcruxes are objects, people, or animals that are bound with a part of the soul for a caster. Spreading them out allows a user to  exist as long as the Horcruxes exist. Making these objects is apparently such an appalling act that even J. K. Rowling has not disclosed the process. Not only do these phylacteries create McGuffins,  but also set up the main twist of the series of a person who is a Horcrux and how that affected his relationship to everyone they know. Patronas also carry a similar function in characterization although they are not as important to the overall plot. A patrona is an ethereal animal summoned that embodies a caster’s most cherished happy memory. When a patrona at a certain part of the series resembles that of another person’s, it implies a few things about that character. In both instances, the creation of a system either created plot or characterization. Harry Potter is filled with unexplained magic, but the plot and characters are richer for the two times when the series explore two grounded elements of its magical world.
  • The One Ring. Known to most people familiar with fantasy, the One Ring is a classical magical item that corrupts user’s will and has powers of foresight, invisibility, and authority over other magic rings. Why use this now cliché example? Because it is the best piece of magic in Lord of the Rings. It is a ring made to corrupt the other nations, which implies something about the maker of ring. The ring is established as something devolves a wearer to want it above all else and turns them into a monster willing destroy anyone to keep it. It says something about different characters in how they interact with it: one after his old age gives in and assaults a child he helped raise for it, one offers to give up the ring after enduring its influence for an extended time, and another denied taking the ring in order to stay loyal to their friend even being fully aware of the power it could grant him for the current situation. The Ring characterizes the cast one by one based on their relationship to it and its bearer due to the simple rule of “he who wields the ring, becomes corrupted by it.”
  • Dragons in Eragon. Eragon is a world where magic comes from dragons. This bond of users who siphon magic from a dragon creates a long-lasting relationship between the main characters. Making dragons a vital source of magic means the  protagonist, Eragon, and his partnered dragon, Saphira,  must keep them together for their goals to be achieved. This not only creates natural ways to threaten a character, but also creates a relationship the author could expound upon. All of this setup is simply by creating the rule that “casting costs energy which dragons can supplement.”

In all of these popular examples, a system in place for the magic (no matter how light that system is) creates opportunities for unique stories, characterization methods, and conflicts. These are by no means the only examples. Sometimes magic is an allegory for weapons of mass destruction and warfare (Wizards in Howl’s Moving Castles by Studio Ghibli & Balefire in The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordon). It can also be used to signify certain events in a person’s life or where they are in the world (Gunslinger in The Dark Tower by Stephen King & Illegal Magic in the Land of Oz Series by L. Frank Baum). Magic can influence the very make up of the world itself (any work by Brandon Sanderson). A magic’s rules create dynamics of play for games, plot points for narratives, and points of development for characters.


We knew we wanted the “magic” in our show to be different than the typical wand-wielding spell-casting fare. For us, it had to be natural and physical, with a source and rules and limitations – and most importantly it had to be a skill rather than just a power, something that a practitioner had to learn and strive for.

-Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino, Makers of Avatar: The Last Airbender  (Vasconcellos 2007)

Starting with Visual, Visceral, Thematic Magic

When starting a magic system for a story or game, it is wise to consider two fundamental things:

  • What does magic look like? What makes it fundamentally recognizable to people in the world and to an audience?
  • What themes is this piece of media exploring? How does this magic system expand on those themes or forces characters to interact with them?

Aesthetics of your magic are the feedback, visual indicators, and overall style of that magic. All magic can be a slightly transparent blue glow, it can be transforming physical properties of blood, or ripples in reality that slowly tear open over time. Visuals make the magic easy to follow and more recognizable. Themes are the questions your magic asks of it’s wielders and society at large.  A system about making pacts with ghosts is dangerous in a fantasy world where the pervading religion believes the body and soul no longer exist after death;  this setup is excellent for exploring ideas of crises of faith or religion sheltering people from dangerous forces. If a computer roleplaying game is about tragedy of loosing those close to you, a magic system can expand on that theme by having magic slowly worsen the stats of and eventually kill characters while making magic a requirement for certain fights. Themes make magic meaningful to the world and characters. as well as potentially relatable to the reader.

The look of the magic (aesthetics) and the meanings of the magic (themes) go hand in hand.  Consider Avatar: the Last Airbender as a prime example. Magic is a visceral manipulation of four elements of nature through martial arts. The four nations each have a style of “bending” (element manipulation) to themselves, which means each bending style represents the nation and general philosophy from that style’s country of origin. The story of a mediator learning all four types of bending then represents the reestablishing of peace between all four nations; or rather, someone capable of learning all four elements represents the hope for bring together all nations those style originate from. The visuals and their general meanings are tied inherently together. A simple question best summarizes this principle: If your magic means something (themes) and there is physical thing that means magic (visuals), wouldn’t that mean for that culture x physical thing means y theme? Basically, tying your magic to a meaning and a visual to your magic makes that visual a symbol. If a person lived in a world where blood is used for summoning familiars and creatures, would someone bleeding not be seen for as an opportunity for life rather than a loss? In a world where ripples in reality allow for pacts with ghosts, how would a culture view ripples in bodies of water or heat-waves in the air? The visuals of the magic and the themes of magic are entwined. Magic makes a visual (elements) and makes it a symbol of a story’s themes (nation, culture). Magic is symbolic and its important to detail what kind of symbol it is when making a piece of media.

  • What symbols does this magic system create?

“In epic fantasy books, it’s not the number of powers that creates immersive and memorable worldbuilding—it’s not even the powers themselves. It’s how well they are ingrained into the society, culture, ecology, economics, and everyday lives of the people in the stories.”

-Brandon Sanderson, Author of the Mistborn Trilogy (Sanderson 2013) 


Adding Muscle to the Skeleton

Brandon Sanderson is an author whose based  his career on writing complex magic systems he uses for his narratives. The Sanderson Laws of magic (principles he learned by writing so many systems for novels) state that magic is in general more interesting based on its limitations, weaknesses, consequences, and costs due to their usefulness in worldbuilding and problem solving (Sanderson 2012). While consequences are more implied rather than included in the 2nd law, they are no doubt directly mentioned several times throughout Sanderson’s posts (see above quote). In short, making systems of magic interesting is more about these four factors than the actual powers in question. This is the meat of the system. Themes and Aesthetics establish the foundation of the magic system where as limitations, weaknesses, costs, and consequences ground the system into something you can add narrative and mechanical (in gaming) weight to. These are not a checklist, merely tools to add think about when constructing a system.

  • Costs. Loosing something important to a character is not old to literature or even games. Sacrifice of sanity in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game for instance (although comical in some versions of it) grants a long-lasting impact of the character/player; it creates moments of development for characters as they choose to lose themselves for small glimpses of power. Costs in material is another well used fantasy trope: materials that can create resources wars between factions or create crisis such as being a component for a powerful spell also being a limited medicine ingredient in a disease nation.
  • Limitations. Hard rules of what magic can not do is basis for building a society around that magic. How can a person guarantee public safety or government’s sovereignty in a world where someone can gain powers greater than they could handle by chance? If magic does not work in all circumstances or situations, then those situations can be exploited to keep magic in check. It creates ways for taking out an overwhelming antagonist and allows for challenges to be developed for a protagonist based on the rules in play.
  • Weaknesses. Magic can and, depending on the work, should have a something to nullify or exploit. A weakness could be as simple as it being weakened by the phases of the moon or is resisted by iron. Similar to limitations, it creates exploits for characters and setting elements to use in conflicts. This allows for conflict to resolved in a satisfying way as long as the weakness is established prior to the conflict.
  • Consequences. By far the most important to character building, consequences are what magic does to the environment, society, etc. around you. Some are not necessarily negative. A life magic system could say killing someone with it gives life to someone at random and extends their health; this could be positive and negative as serial killers and saints are all eligible  to be that person. Consequence can create new plot threads and expand on how/why a society treats magic the way it does. A particular type of magic can be persecuted for what did to the soil in that land. A person bearing a type of magic could attract creatures wanted and unwanted depending on where they go. How a character lives with the consequences of magic allows for simultaneous worldbuilding and development.


There’s no shortage of ways to make it work; for magic to live up to both its potential and its hype. Many of them have problems to overcome, especially given how much fighting RPG characters tend to do compared to their equivalents in other works of fiction and the industry’s current dislike of the player ever ending up in a particularly negative state due to poor decisions made hours earlier, but they’re problems well worth overcoming. Magic should be more interesting. It should be exciting. It should be a little bit dangerous, even in the right hands. What it shouldn’t ever be is boring, which at the moment, it pretty much is. Flashy and boring, yes, often, but still boring – a complete waste of potential, begging to be restored to its rightful awesomeness.

Richard Cobbett, Writing Consultant on Games like The Long Journey Home and Sunless Sea

Implications: Magic as Story and Game Mechanics

Video Games and Tabletop Roleplaying Games are trapped in a cycle of generic magic systems with a wide array of effects. The importance of that system to the worlds, the characters, and the stories they tell are often over looked. This division between magic and what it means for the worlds is source of disconnect from the play experience and the alleged narrative taking place. But as we see in fantasy works in movies and books, the things that make magic systems interesting are its consequences and rules. The very mechanics of a magic system in a game could also be the very rule with which a narrative experience is told. In his RockPaperShotgun article,The RPG Scrollbars: The Lost Magic Of Magic , Richard Cobbett notes several preliminary examples video games that make use of magic in their narrative experience (Cobbett 2015). These examples include Witcher 3’s use of the Geralt’s (protagonist) feeble magic abilities compared to the mysterious powers wielded by true sorcerers  to create problems and a sense of mystery. He also cites The Cowled Wizards from the game Baldur’s Gate 2, noting how their aggression towards the players if they openly casted spells around them gave flavor to that game locale.

Tabletop Rolepaying Games have a few great examples of this. Legend of the 5 Rings has magic revolving around communicating with elemental spirits that only shugenja (priests) can. This allows players to take on a very specific role of mediator (spiritual duty of the samurai class), experience the spirituality of that world through the magic system, and create moments of roleplaying between the GM (playing the spirits) and the players. Shadowrun bears a lot of specific processes mages have to go through in order to cast spells and give themselves power. Since casting a spell could kill a player, it puts the player in the character’s shoes to make the decision if a spell casting  is worth losing their life over. Shadowrun also thinks through important society questions about magic in modern times such as coming up with a court approved version of forensics for spells and requiring all known wizards to be licensed in order to legally exist. There are plenty of examples of games that make use of these principles well for those looking. Clever uses of magic abound in many media.

  • Penalties or Bonuses can be given to a character when socially interacting with a faction based on their alignment with a particular magic.
  • Magic can be a long process, creating the need for strategy and preparation. This can lead to these skills to be a sorcerer’s core requirements in apprentices and values that countries seek to breed into their populace.
  • Magic can be tied to a particular link to a creature that is immune to its own magic if its ever encountered.
  • Magic requires the player and the character to perform specific terrible acts. This mean  encountering a character with x magical ability says something about their history and their reaction to magic says something about their ethics.

There are any number of uses a person can think of. Everything listed in this article is merely the beginning. As a brief example of the possibilities, the very same principles in this article apply equally to other power systems such as the recently saturated Supers genre. Building a magic system to mechanically and narratively parallel each other has a huge potential for games. Plots benefit in similar way when magic system and plot notes lineup. Fantasy has lost its luster to some. This is merely a reaction to the saturation of uninspired, undeveloped fantasy works that don’t take the time to really think about what makes the genre special: magic. Its limits, its consequences, its weakness, and most of all its symbolism have no limits to their combinations or the amount of works they can produce.  Its a matter of simple matter of knowing how to do it.


Image Used

Margritte, R (1928). The Mysteries of the Horizon [Painting]. Retrieved From


Allen, P. (2011, January 21). Exploring the Edge of the Fantasy Map: PW Talks with Patrick Rothfuss. Retrieved from

The RPG Scrollbars: The Lost Magic Of Magic. Retrieved from

Sanderson, B. (2012, January 16). Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic. Retrieved from

Sanderson, B.  (2013, September 25). Sanderson’s 2nd Law. Retrieved from

Vasconcellos,  E. (2007, September 6). Interview: Avater’s Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino. Retrived from