Sunday, 22 September 2013

Numenera - Read Impressions

Whoo Boy. A week ago I finally finished thoroughly reading all 416 pages of the Numenera Corebook, along with two PDF adventures.

Wow. As far as RPG rulesbooks go, Numenera rates pretty high on those I've read.

Here's a quasi review with any of my thoughts and possible spoilers ahead.

The book is organized into 9 sections or 'Parts'; each part houses 2 to 5 chapters; a total of 28 chapters and 3 appendixes comprise the book. It contains a glossary and a two page index which you might initially consider sparse; but there are two reasons I believe behind this: First, the side margins of the entire book are filled with page referencing numbers to any highlighted rules, stats, or setting pieces; this allows the reader to easily skip ahead or back if they want/need clarification on something highlighted, this helps the reader familiarize themselves with the layout of book and where to find the relevant information. Second relates to the fact that Numenera has a very simple core mechanic, is fairly rules light, and encourages the GM to adjudicate any situation logically; thus there's little need to look up any situation specific rules or the like.

I think almost goes without saying the art in Numenera is phenomenal, seriously top notch evocative stuff.

Part 1: Getting Started

This section covers the chapters Welcome to the Ninth World and How to Play Numenera; the former is a very brief primer on the setting and themes of the Ninth World, and the latter gives a basic overview of how the system's core mechanic works. Not much to say about this short section, aside that it serves well to explain these two primary concepts to anyone who picks up the book.

Part 2: Characters

The five chapters Creating Your Character, Character Type, Character Descriptor, Character Focus, and Equipment fill this part. 

It is worth noting that the first two Parts of the corebook (chapters one through seven) are pretty much the same content in the Numenera Player's Guide; everything beyond is more GM-oriented like detailed rules and setting fluff. This further reflects the smart design and layout of the book; it's nice that player's don't need to fork over cash for their own copy of the corebook for rules just pertaining to their characters.

Obviously this section covers everything players would need to know for creating and running a PC in Numenera. Character creation is covered by three primary parts (each having a relevant chapter) of the statement “I am an adjective noun who verbs." The adjective is the Descriptor (the character's demeanour), the noun the Type (the closest thing to 'class'; a Glaive [Warrior], a Nano [Spellcaster], or a Jack [Skilled]) and the verb is the Focus (a unique background and special abilities).

This makes for very customized characters, along with all the other options a PC can choose when they advance through each Type's six Tiers ('levels'). It also helps ensure that no two PCs of the same Type are too similar, if at all. Advancement is handled pretty openly by spending XP on one of four benefits, and once you've bought each benefit you advance to the next Tier that grants you more abilities and so on.

Some of the Foci smack heavily of fantasy tropes like barbarians, crafters, rangers, archers, werewolves, bards, swashbucklers, thieves, assassins, beast masters, healers, two-weapon fighters, psionics, illusionists, leaders, etc. but there are wholly unique ones as well such as lightning harnessers, magnetism or gravity manipulators, biomechanicals, and those considered partially-out-of-phase. These allow characters to follow along the lines of common archetypes, supporting the Fantasy side of this Science-Fantasy RPG, or be something more bizarre.

I'm not going to go much further into Tiers, Stat Pools, Edge, and Skills, as there are many in-depth reviews out on the web. Here though is a good video that runs down the specifics of character creation and the basics of gameplay:

The final section covers the general equipment worn, carried, and used in the Ninth World, except for the numenera itself, which is a catch all word for technology from the previous world, which is covered later on.

Part 3: Playing The Game

The two chapters covering the Rules Of The Game and the Optional Rules are covered in this section.

Numenera uses a d20 for resolution, which is target number based. That's where the similarities to WotC's d20 System pretty much end. Although both have you roll a d20 to match or exceed a target number/DC, Numenera's Cypher System as it is referred to, takes a unique way to avoid all the math that can come with counting up all the bonuses and/or penalties that may modify any given task. Instead of things like skills, assistance, etc. adding to the die result in an attempt boost the result higher than the DC, the modifiers in Numenera lower the DC. In fact if they're able to lower the difficult to zero, the task succeeds automatically.

This video does a better job explaining it than I do:

Also adding a little to the usual d20 results of Critical Hit (here called a Major Effect) on a natural 20 and Critical Fail (here called a GM Intrusion) on a natural 1 are the damage bonuses of +1 and +2 on 17 and 18 respectively, and the Minor Effect on a 19.

The other unique thing about Numenera is that the GM doesn't roll in opposition, ever. The players handle all the dice rolls that relate to their characters. A creature or NPC's level is it's difficulty for any related tasks for it, this includes not only the difficulty to attack it but also to defend oneself from it. This puts the power in the hands of the players as they drive the action and let's the GM focus more upon the overall story and other concerns. I have yet to play/run this yet, so I can understand how it might feel weird for a GM to not have to roll for a monster to attack, but I am intrigued to experience this first hand.

GM Intrusion allows the GM to pro-actively steer the course of the game by introducing complications for characters without having to resort to dice chance or heavy-handed tactics like railroading. When the GM intrudes such a complication upon a character he must offer that player 2 XP (except in the case of the player rolling a 1), and if the player accepts he must give one of the XP to another player. The player has the option of refusing the intrusion and thus the 2 XP offered by spending 1 XP. This is very similar to compelling aspects in FATE; a well implemented way for the GM to reward the PC's complications.

The rest of the chapter covers all the other general rules, and the next chapter covers optional rules that can add more depth to the game, although I wouldn't say many or any are necessary.

Part 4: The Setting

This is a BIG one, probably comprising a fourth or fifth of the book with five chapters that cover most the fluff of Numenera's setting: Living in the Ninth World, The Steadfast, The Beyond, Beyond the Beyond, and Organizations.

I won't go and spoil this section, but I will say the descriptions of the lands of the Ninth World are well done, with just enough information but not too much to prevent customization. My one thing of note is that a few parts of the regions are written from a different perspective than a general overview; a few are nice and atmospheric, but in some instances this change in descriptive is jarring.

This is also the time to mention the full poster map provided with the book and printed on the endpapers; this map and nearly all the cartography in the book was done by master cartographer Christopher West, and he pulled out all the stops in the workmanship and quality of the wondrous terrain of the Ninth World. It's also clever how there a plethora of unlabelled points of interest on the map just begging for you and your player's to explore and craft a story there.

Part 5: Creatures & Characters

A pretty straight forward section with a chapter on Creatures and one on Non-Player Characters.

The bestiary of the Ninth World is filled with weird and wonderful creatures, some beneficial, most dangerous. Stat blocks are simple and easy to use; and it'd be remiss to say how easy it would be for a GM to create his own fantastical creatures.

A six pages, Non-Player Characters is probably the smallest chapter in the book; filled with a few generic NPC's and a bunch of named ones the GM is free to use.

Part 6: The Numenera

The namesake of the game, the chapters on Technology, Cyphers, Artifacts, and Oddities & Discoveries cover the 'numenera' of the Ninth World.

Cyphers are equivalent to one-use magic items from most fantasy RPGs such as magic potions or scrolls; they have one use and then they're gone. Cyphers are actually a pretty big part of the game (one reason Monte named the game engine the Cypher system), and the GM is told to consider them more like temporary abilities for characters given their prevalence and availability. Characters are limited by the number of cyphers they can carry at any given time, but can gradually carry more as they advance. This helps prevent hoarding and encourages cypher use as the characters will always find more. This means the PC's will always have a new trick up their sleeves and allows more creativity during gameplay.

Artifacts are more similar to permanent magic items, but not really permanent per say. The vast majority of them deplete when used or activated, the more powerful ones having a higher chance of no longer functioning than lesser ones. It's a decent balance to prevent a powerful artifact from dominating a given task for a lengthy amount of time (it kinda self rectifies those GM mistakes of giving the PC's an overpowered magic item). Artifacts have perks that range from mildly annoying or detrimental to highly situational or hazardous.

Oddities tend to be interesting numenera that are usually not really practical for any use in the greater whole. That doesn't mean the GM should stop the players from attempting to use an oddity for a interesting purpose.

The last few pages cover creating new cyphers (such as Trollsmyths's Goo), artifacts, oddities, and discovers for your own game.

Part 7: Running The Game

This section is specifically addressed towards the GM, with the chapters on Using the Rules, Building a Story, and Realizing the Ninth World.

Monte Cook's years of experience of game design and GM'ing shine through in this section. He explains his motivation behind Numenera's design, which is primarily to aid the GM in telling a story by making it easier for them to run the game and focus on shepherding the fun. He makes it very clear that if the rules interfere with the story in any way they should be disregarded:

"The rules are not the final word - you are. You are not subservient to the rules."
We're seeing a recent trend in many recent RPGs where the pendulum of rules is swinging back from heavily codified systems (like 3.5 & 4E) to more free-flowing and narrative systems (EotE, FATE, and earlier editions of D&D) that don't restrict GMs with rules they are expected to follow and support their own adjudication.

I learned a many years ago one of the keys to GM'ing is not knowing and mastering the rules of a system, but putting the needs of the story, game, and my players first. This can be difficult for players and GMs who are more rules-minded to accept, as many bare the mentality that the GM is the opponent in a game, and the rules keep him/her from 'cheating'; this is unfortunate because good GMs aren't competitive or antagonistic to their group, and any conflict or change to the status quo isn't done out of spite but to challenge the players and enrich the story. After all, a story where the protagonist easily succeeds over the trials and tribulations placed before them is a very dull story indeed.

But I digress, as that last paragraph was mostly my own thoughts, but it does resonate with what Monte is telling the GMs in this section.

The second chapter presents excellent advice on how to craft stories, manage pacing, present descriptions, design encounters and challenges, etc. As with the previous chapter, this is full of brilliant GM advice usable in any RPG.

The final chapter covers the behind-the-scenes for making the setting of the Ninth World realize, discussing themes, concepts, and ideas.

Part 8: Adventures

The penultimate section of the book contains four adventures: The Beale of Boregal, Seedship, The Hidden Price, and the Three Sanctums.

The Beale of Boregal is meant to be the first adventure a GM's runs in Numenera, with lots of advice and an possible event flowchart. It's a pretty well written with several options and choices for players, although I think the ending is a little anticlimactic.

Seedship is probably the weakest adventure in the corebook, being pretty much akin to a classic dungeon crawl (which will probably be great for gamers who enjoy those).

The Hidden Price is a decent adventure that combines both a bit of exploration and some social encounters and intrigue. It is a little on the flat side both in the ruins and in the depth of the social aspects. GMs are probably expected to flesh out the adventure a bit.

Finally the Three Sanctums is an adventure for more experienced characters. Although the PC's have the option a visiting three locales, one of them is pretty much a antagonist-filled dead end that I can foresee being a possible time waster and frustrating to the PCs. (After all, why have a path lead off from the main route if it serves nothing to further the plot?)

My other minor note is that during the adventure the PC's may be presented with a "three-piece" map of sorts that shows how the eponymous three sanctums' conduits connect to each other in a perfect equilateral triangle - just not in a three dimensional space; there is an image in the adventure that could be used to show this, but it's lacks the flair I think it makes it interesting. I think the GM should make their own map of the three sanctums, then tear it into thirds, and rearrange it so each sanctum's conduits connect, or better yet give it to the PCs' to figure out (and get rewarded XP for the discovery). An interesting and engaging prop idea.

Other than that the adventure has a good background and an interesting final act.

Part 9: Back Matter

This final section of the book is where the three appendixes are kept along with the glossary, index, and character sheet.

Appendix A is Character Creation Walkthrough.
Appendix B is a Bibliography and list of Resources that inspired Numenera.
Appendix C is several pages listing kickstarter backers.

The character sheet is interesting as it is designed to be folded up like a pamphlet, with all the statistics, skills, abilities, and possessions on the inside; and a character background and notes on the outside.

Bonus: The Nightmare Switch and Vortex adventures

A compatriot who backed the Kickstarter for Numenera was kind enough to let me have a look at the Kickstarter-exclusive adventure The Nightmare Switch, a very pretty simple but solid 8-page adventure with a standard save-the-town plot. It's kinda a shame that this adventure isn't included in the corebook, as it's quite good in comparison to most of them, but still totally understandable that this was a Kickstarter-exclusive.

As a first time adventure, I'd probably run The Nightmare Switch over The Beale of Boregal.

Vortex was the début GenCon 2013 scenario and the first of Numenera's Glimmers, a line of short PDF-distributed adventures. Vortex is an 18 page long two-part sandbox adventure that was originally written as a convention game with six-pregen characters, but can be easily inserted into any campaign. IMHO Vortex is, if not the, one of the top adventure's right now for Numenera; it really immerses everyone in the themes and setting of the Ninth World, without tying it down to a specific location. It also introduces variety NPCs with distinct personalities and ambitions, and has interesting and unique locales the PCs visit.

Many may be put off by Vortex's it's somewhat steep $5.99 price, but it is a rock solid adventure and worth the money. I look forward to not only the possibility of running Vortex when I GM Numenera at the end of this month, but to also possibly running it at a convention or event in the future.

Bonus Bonus: The Numenera Character Creator App

I've had a bit more time to familiarize myself with this App and here are my thoughts on it so far:

The Good: It works great as a character creation tool; a way to track and save stats, equipment, abilities, skills, and XP; and it allows you to upgrade and advance character(s).

The Bad: The interface could use a bit of work as it's not always apparent how to navigate the screens of the app. Also it could use a few more character portraits I think. It's also worth noting any of the abilities and whatnot listed aren't fully detailed, so the App isn't a suitable portable replacement for the Player's Guide unfortunately; just a player/GM aid.

The Bug: Normally when purchasing benefits with XP to advance, you have the option of selecting a 'special option' that counts as benefit for the purpose of meeting the requirement of purchasing four benefits before advancing to your next character Tier. This 'special option' is available to select when upgrading in the App, but along with the 4 other benefits it has to be purchased before your character is automatically advanced to the next Tier: essentially making you have to purchase 5 benefits. This can be avoided with 4 free XP and ignoring the effects of selecting the last benefit, but you shouldn't have to work around this bug. Hopefully this will be rectified soon.

Update: So like a day or so after I wrote this, 3lb Games updated their App, fixing this bug along with a few others that hadn't noticed. It's great to know that these guys are on top of these concerns, and they've also informed us that they're working on a feature to print characters and transfer them between apps. The Numenera Character Creator App's future looks promising!

I'm planning on using this App during my upcoming game to manage my players' characters. We'll see how it holds up under heavier use.

Final Impressions

Numenera is by far the most unique and impressive RPG I've seen this year. Although part of me is disappointed I missed my chance to support it's Kickstarter, I am very pleased that an RPG that I chose to pick up on a whim with little foreknowledge of its content has impressed me so much. It may be a bit soon to tell, but I can foresee Numenera occupying a special place on my bookshelf reserved for my favourite RPGs. :)

That mostly concludes my First Impressions of Numenera, though I do plan a follow up post after I've had a chance to run it/play it (hopefully the ending of September/beginning of October) and relate my experiences with it.

Jerreth Esq. is a Clever Jack who Entertains. ;{١

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