Sunday, November 3, 2013

Roleplaying Game: Numenera

"Numenera is a perfect example of what Monte Cook does best--create fascinating settings while stretching the boundaries of what RPGs can do."

Earlier in the year, gaming legend Monte Cook decided to post a $20,000 Kickstarter to publish a new roleplaying game he called Numenera. It hit goal within hours and closed at a stunning half-a-million dollars. Why? Monte Cook has been a trusted name for quality and innovation since the turn of the century and when he says he's creating a new RPG, you can bet the industry will be listening.

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Roleplaying games are tabletop games where players work together to create a story, similar to the way improvisational actors create a story on stage, or friends tell campfire stories. One player, often called a Gamemaster (GM), Storyteller (ST), or Dungeonmaster (DM), plays the part of the writer/director/producer. Unlike a novel, movie or play, though, the characters are created by each individual player instead of the writer. A GM creates the world for the players to interact in, but the players control their own actions and reactions. Roleplaying games exist for any and every genre--horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, pulp, secret agent, alternate history, romance, superheroes, etc. Any movie, TV show, or novel you've seen or read can be the setting for a roleplaying game; in fact, TV shows (Stargate SG-1, Firefly), movies (Star Wars), comic books (Marvel, DC), novels (The Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones) and even computer roleplaying games (Warcraft) have all inspired their own tabletop RPGs.

The GM acts as a rules moderator. They also play the parts of supporting cast characters (Non-Player Characters, or NPCs), describe settings, grant clues, and putt interesting plot twists in front of the players to make the game as fun and interesting as possible. Players react to these plot twists and clues based on their own motivations and their interactions with other players. Though players may accomplish goals, like tracking down a killer or solving the mystery of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, there is no winning or losing in roleplaying games. A game is a win if everyone has a great time.


Numenera is a science fantasy RPG inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Numenera takes us far enough into the future (a billion years or so) that the Earth is so different, with technology so bizarre and beyond our current understanding, that it feels like magic. Eight major civilizations have risen and fallen, including extraterrestrial and extradimensional incursions, and the world is coming out of a Dark Ages. Bizarre creatures and inscrutable technologies cover the planet, waiting to be discovered; floating towers, machines plugged into the molten core of the planet, strange vehicles, mutants, satellites, and a ubiquitous haze of nanobots that fills the atmosphere. These objects are scavenged by the current generation like medieval farmers using the stones of abandoned Roman aqueducts to make their homes.

The word Numenera comes from "numinous", meaning something that has a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity. The people of Earth worship this technology, often using it for purposes never intended by their creators.

What Makes Numenera Different?

Numenera is a story-focused RPG, where experience and character advancement comes from exploration and interaction, not grinding through monsters. Character creation, player/GM interaction and even the experience point system have been designed to free the GM to create better stories and to encourage players to work together to create interesting stories.

Character Creation

On the surface, Numenera looks like a re-skinned fantasy setting where magic is replaced by absurdly advanced technology. Nanos can be seen as a spellcasting class whose powers come from manipulating numenera. Warriors are known as Glaives and multitalented rogues are called Jacks (short for jack-of-all-trades, or the master of all rakes, Jack, from numerous fairy tales). Unlike other fantasy RPGs, these types (aka; classes), make up only a fraction of your character's story.

Character creation in Numenera starts by completing this sentence:

"I'm a ______, ______ who ______s."

For example, "I'm a Rugged Jack who Lives in the Wilderness", "I'm a Learned Nano who Wears a Sheen of Ice", "I'm a Strong Glaive who Masters Weapons." Each descriptor (Charming, Graceful), type (Glaive, Nano), and foci (Rides the Lightning, Entertains) has its own set of powers and skills that blend to make a unique character.

Though the above examples could describe stereotypical ranger, wizard, and fighter archetypes, the more fascinating characters come from shuffling the descriptors, types and foci in interesting ways.

"I'm a Strong Jack who Fuses Flesh with Steel."
"I'm a Graceful Nano who Works the Back Alleys."
"I'm a Learned Glaive who Controls Gravity."

Ability Pools

Like any other RPG, characters have a stats that rate their natural abilities. In the case of Numenera the stats are Might, Speed, and Intellect. Unlike other RPGs, these score are not static, they are referred to as Pools and you spend them whenever you use effort to get something done.

When you're attacking a creature, you can expend "Effort" from your Might Pool to increase your chance to hit, increase your damage, or trigger an effect that requires Might, such as the Bash ability. Expending effort takes 3 points from the associated pool, though this can be reduced depending on how trained your character is in that pool.

When you start with a Might of 14 and you end a fight with a Might of 2, you can picture your character getting exhausted. To make things even more interesting, damage comes directly off of your pools. If you expend enough effort to drop yourself to 2 Might, then get hit by an opponent for 4 damage, your Might Pool is reduced to 0 and the 2 leftover points come off either of your other Pools. When your first pool reaches 0 you are Impaired; when a second pool reaches 0 you are Debilitated, and when your final pool reaches 0 you are Dead.

Reaching 0 in a pool doesn't mean you can't fight, or think, or dodge, it simply means you can't expend any additional effort; you're too wounded or exhausted to do anything spectacular.

Character Interaction

The game includes a number of mechanics to encourage teamwork and roleplaying. Every foci comes with a listed Connection that tells you how you might have a connection to someone else in your part. For example, if you have the foci "Wears a Sheen of Ice", you pick one character from your group who benefits from your Ice Armor ability if they are standing nearby. How or why this happens is up to your imagination; the character could be your sibling and the genetic similarity allows them to echo your mutant power, or maybe your abilities are based on manipulating nanites and the other character syphons that ability with their own machine-manipulating powers. Though experienced roleplayers often set up these interactions themselves, the fact that the interactions are already built into the system inspires party dynamics from the start and is ideal for new players.

Experience Points (XP)

As I mentioned earlier, experience points are gained through exploration rather than grinding through monsters. Experience points are awarded in small amounts (1 or 2 at a time) and can be spent to increase your character's abilities in a number of ways. They can also be spent during game to allow any character a reroll, including your party members.

In addition to rewarding exploration and succeeding at quest goals, Numenera's story-focused XP system includes a fascinating mechanic called GM Intervention. At any time during the session, the GM can twist the story to make it more interesting or dramatic in some way. If they do, the target of that dramatic twist is given 2 XP. The twist? The target must give one of those 2 XP to another player, along with an explanation of why the target feels that player deserves it. This system encourages in-play "shout outs" to other players who do something interesting, have shown awesome roleplaying, or who sacrificed themselves for the greater good instead of being self-focused at the table.

Players are welcome to use 1 XP to prevent the GM Intervention, but they don't get the reward.


Cyphers are one-shot devices that players purchase or scavenge during the game. Cyphers can be any object, from pills to explosives to floating platforms to robots, that someone, somewhere has found or rigged from the leftover technology spread across the planet. Players may only carry two or three cyphers at a time and are encouraged to use them as often as possible since they will be replaced regularly through exploration. These devices give the players a continuous stream of odd and useful powers to draw on during game-play.

On the Table

In addition to the unique approach to character generation and interaction I've already talked about, Numenera twists another classic aspect of other RPGs. Normally GMs make all rolls for the NPCs that the players encounter in the course of the story. Numenera turns that on its ear by having the players roll for everything! That's right, if you are attacking a guard or trying to bribe an official, you roll against a target number determined by how skilled the target is. If you are ambushed by a mutant abhuman you make a defense roll against how powerful the attacker is. The GM rolls nothing. Damage in Numenera is determined by the type of weapon and the powers the players use and is a flat number.

Though difficult to wrap your brain around at first, this mechanic lets the GM focus on the story, while keeping the players involved every step of the way. No more waiting while the GM rolls the attacks and damage for a dozen orcs.

The storytelling focus of Numenera is perfect for online play through G+ Hangouts.
L-R: Chase Coleman, Monte Cook, Norm Walsh, Rich Howard, Sam Roberts

Final Verdict

Everything you need to play can be found in the Core rulebook with the exception of pencils and dice (you will also need at least one 20-sided and one 6-sided die, available at most local game stores). The Core rulebook includes four introductory adventures that explore the breadth and depth of the Ninth World setting, with several new adventures already published. The relatively simple system is perfect for introducing young roleplayers to the hobby, while still providing enough depth of setting to keep experienced players intrigued. This is especially true if younger players are transitioning from games such as Hero Kids.

Numenera is a perfect example of what Monte Cook does best--create fascinating settings while stretching the boundaries of what RPGs can do. Though the system of Numenera is relatively simple, the setting is not, and I expect that as published adventures are released, the Ninth World will become the guidepost for what can be done with science fantasy RPGs.


Published Adventures: The Vortex, The Devil's Spine

Thunderstone Advance: Numenera: a deck-building game set in the Ninth World.

Torment: Tides of Numenera: the upcoming computer game from Colin McComb, co-creator of the classic computer RPG, Planescape: Torment.

Numenera Wiki

Numenera Facebook Page

Cartography of Numenera: Christopher West


  1. Nice review. I'm still working my way through the Core Book, currently reading the section of The Beyond. Lots of weird stuff that is inspiring for adventures. And you can use any RPG adventure already published and re-skin it easily to fit into the Ninth World.

    1. That's a great point. I'd be interested in seeing an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks translation to Numenera.