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.”

Characters

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.

Advancement

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

Summary

Current Price: $60

Reviewer’s Appraisal: $35

Pros: 

  • 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

Cons: 

  • 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.

 

3 thoughts on “Design Review of Numenera: A Wondrous Core with Lackluster Execution

  1. Nice review. I have the game on my shelf, but haven’t played it yet (my groups are enamoured with D&D 5e at the moment). I was very impressed with the production and systems but didn’t think about balance issues until I read your review. I will play a campaign at some point, but it’s nice to know some of the potential concerns in advance. 🙂

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  2. …you do know that the system is called the Cypher System right? It’s completely designed with cyphers in mind. As for the complaint about what cyphers do when you have too many of them, there’s literally a table that you can roll on to find out. I think it’s in the full rule book.

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    • MCG might say that the Cypher System is designed with cyphers in mind, but that doesn’t make it true. You can play without any cyphers just fine and not lose anything important in the process. Characters function just fine without them, and only very few character options even deal with cyphers explicitly. I’ve come to believe that cyphers – as written – might really be more of a last-minute addition than a core concept. The game just doesn’t change enough without them.

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