Friday, 5 December 2014

Numenera RPG: A Review

If you've read my first blog post, you may remember me mentioning a little something called the Numenera RPG. If you don't know what an RPG is, go here. However, I'm going to assume some familiarity with RPGs for the remainder of this post, so if you have any further questions, feel free to pose them in the comments below, or send me a personal message.

This is going to be a review/overview of the Numenera RPG core book, and I'll be taking a look at some of the supplements in a later post.

Numenera Core Book

I like Numenera. A lot. It's not without its flaws, but it's an incredibly charming system.

Let's start with the setting. They'll be able to describe it better than I:

There Have Been Eight Previous Worlds
Each world stretched across vast millennia of time. Each played host to a race whose civilizations rose to supremacy but eventually died or scattered, disappeared or transcended. During the time each world flourished, those that ruled it spoke to the stars, reengineered their physical bodies, and mastered form and essence, all in their own unique ways.
Each left behind remnants.
The people of the new world—the Ninth World—sometimes call these remnants magic, and who are we to say they’re wrong? But most give a unique name to the legacies of the nigh-unimaginable past. They call them…


Bio-engineered creatures, dangerous nanotechnology, a pervasive datasphere, and many more wondrous and powerful devices exist within the ninth world, and the people who live in it are affected by these remnants in their daily lives.

It's an excellent way to make a world that actually feels familiar, in the sense of traditional fantasy worlds, and the hierarchies that exist there, but also unfathomably strange.Weird things abound in the ninth world.

This all means that as GM, you have free reign to do as you like in terms of creatures and setting - since everything can be explained as being, well, unexplainable. It's remarkably freeing.

The core book itself has a huge chapter on the background of the ninth world. In fact, and I'll go into more detail later, the core book for Numenera is especially great in that it contains absolutely everything you'd need to run as many adventures and campaigns as you'd like. The background setting gives a picture of a world forever in flux. There's a huge map, to go with it, and each area on the map, from the countries of the relatively safe Steadfast (where you are only mostly likely to get attacked while traveling at night) to the dangerous Beyond and even furthur. Each major location and every city are given just enough detail to be uniquely interesting, but not so much that it stifles your own creativity as a GM. There are also two locations that are incredibly detailed, if you want more structure.

Everything just oozes potential - any kind of adventure could be played in the setting given the right location. Added to this for each section of the map (of which there are about twenty or so) there are several vague ideas for plot hooks and weird happenings - as if I needed any more inspiration! I would recommend this book to people based upon the background chapter alone, if not for the fact that the price tag matches the size of the thing.

It would be prudent to talk about the system next.

It's very simple. I believe that people's preferences for RPGs often depend upon that balance between rules and improvisation. There are many systems that rely almost solely on the rules to create a vast simulation of events. Others are more interested in giving a framework for creativity. I won't discuss that too much here, only to say that I believe that Numenera hits the perfect balance, for my own preference at least, between rules and creativity.

Everything in Numenera has a level - enemies, tasks, artifacts. In order to do something, you must roll a d20, and achieve the target number - that is, 3x the level. So if an enemy is level 5, you must roll a 15 to hit them. If it is a level 2 task to recall a useful piece of information, you need to roll a 6 to remember it. Simple, right? It gets even simpler. Almost any bonus or detriment merely lowers or raises the level of the task respectively. See that level 5 enemy? Maybe his arm is broken. Now it's a level 4 task to hit him (roll a 12). Or maybe you're trying to recall the information while being bombarded with noise. Put it up to a level 3 (roll a 9). If the level gets to 0 or less, you complete the task automatically. Brilliant.

And the players roll all the dice. If that level 5 enemy attacks the player, the player rolls a defence roll with a target number of 15. As a GM I found it rather odd to not roll dice, but it freed me up to think more about what was going to happen next.

I have had one problem with the rules in their basic form. To add more tension to the dice rolls, the players can use something called effort, which decreases the level of the task, but depletes points from the relevant pool (more on that later). Combined with something called edge, the concept can be a tad confusing, and tricky for players to learn. I do like it in practice, but it's one of those things that feels rather unintuitive, and can take you out of the game a little.

Character creation is just plain fun. You build your character up as a sentence: [Name] is an [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]. For example, Baztak is a Graceful Nano who Rides the Lightning. Each forms an element of your character. 

The noun is about as close as you come to the idea of a character class. The three types - Glaive, Nano, Jack - correspond roughly to the classic trio of fighter, wizard, thief. Glaives have a focus on combat, nanos have a lot of spell-like 'estories' and jacks have a mixture of both and some other tricks up their sleeves. There's a lot of room for different playstyles in each type, without resorting to putting players down different tracks like in Dungeons and Dragons (I'll likely reference DnD some more in this review, as it is my most played system).

The adjective, or descriptor, helps with this customisation, giving the player a decent list of different options to choose from, each giving several benefits, and occasionally a drawback or two. For example 'Rugged' gives you skills in most outdoor activities, but gives an inability in social interactions.

In my mind, the most interesting area of character creation is the verb, or foci. There are 29 of these in the core book, and they've clearly put a lot of thought and care into all of them. The foci can be thought of as the one unique thing your character can do and give new benefits at each tier. They can be power based: Rides the Lightning, Employs Magnetism, Talks to Machines - combat oriented: Wields Two Weapons at Once, Carries a Quiver, Fights With Panache - or more RP based; Crafts Unique Objects, Explores Dark Places, Works the Back Alleys.

One particular favourite of mine is Howls at the Moon, which turns your character into a lycanthrope, who has increasingly more control over his powers the higher his tier. Recently I've been of the opinion that the core book of an RPG should let you make your character awesome and interesting. Numenera has that in spades. I should note that there are plenty of other interesting choices you get during character development, including being able to add roleplaying elements for each of the three steps. The foci for example, strengthens your link to other player characters. 

The bulk of the characters are the three pools - Might, Speed and Intellect, which double as health, and the stats you draw from when you use abilites or spend effort. As such all tasks revolve around those three pools. 

So now you're thinking, 'that's cool, plenty of powers for the players to use'. Well think again! Wait, no, keep on thinking that. But be prepared to think it more.

Cyphers. In Numenera, these are not ways to break a code, but instead is a general term for any one use item in the game. Players are encouraged to use pretty much as many as they can carry each game (2 or 3 each). In practice, this means that at any one time, a player could have almost any ability imaginable, from teleportation, to walking through walls, to a really big explosion, to any other even more imaginative effects. One cypher turns the body of the user into a chemical factory, where after a certain amount of time they sweat out a potentially useful drug.

And dear lord, do those players come up with imaginative uses for those cyphers. It means that as the GM, you always need to be able to give an answer. Numenera is not for those who answer no. It rewards the GMs who answer yes. Yes, you can attach that gravity module to the big enemy, so they can no longer move or fight. Yes, you can walk through that wall, even though I haven't quite decided what was there yet. 

Thankfully, the core framework of Numenera makes it ridiculously easy to come up with encounters. So long as your imagination is up to the task. Creatures tend just to be levels with a couple of strengths, a couple of flaws, a couple of tricks and a behaviour. They don't need to make sense. In the core book, there's a race of abhumans who have a tentacle for a head. And a bog monster that has heads on tentacles for that matter. 

So you can probably tell by now what I think of Numenera. It's great. An imaginative, stimulating setting and ruleset, that helped me create great adventures with only a few hours real preparation.  But the core book itself has its flaws. The rules sections are not particularly well laid out - I've spent ten minutes searching for a paragraph I knew existed but could not find. This is fairly frustrating when the rest of the game is so simple.

Certain elements of the game are tricky to understand on the first read through. I've had this problem with a lot of RPGs, but again, it's more obvious in the context. 

The suggested character sheet is good, but a little graphically busy, and there is no where near enough room in the equipment section.

So taking that all into account, do I think the Numenera Core Book is worth your money? For £40, it seems like a hefty investment. But when you compare it to something like DnD, for which realistically you could end up spending £25 per book, where at least two of them are necessary for a GM, it's not all that bad. The sheer wealth of content in the Core Book is insane. Character creation, core rules, a huge background section, creatures, cyphers, artifacts, oddities and loads of gm advice. Added to that are optional rules, and FOUR pre-made adventures in the back of the book (which I have not run, but intend to steal from mercilessly).

I wholeheartedly recommend Numenera, and the Numenera Core Book. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and I've had so much fun running adventures in the setting.

Please comment below if you agree or disagree with my review. Watch out for my post detailing the first adventure in my Numenera campaign, coming soon. Thank you for reading.

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