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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Wondrously More Than Magic

In the far future mankind will have done wonderful things. Travelled to other universes. Controlled the energies of stars. Constructed cities and structures that float in the sky. Harnessed the smallest of machines to undertake great tasks and more. Modified the appearance and genetics of not just the beasts around them, but of themselves to give endless form and function. All this and more over the course of eight aeons and eight great civilisations, but now, following the fall of the last civilisation, what is left of such great achievements are orbiting satellites that beam constant streams of inaccessible information, engines deep within the Earth whose thrumming can at times be felt on the surface, structures that hang in the sky without the means to access them, portals that occasionally open to other worlds that might lead to greater wonders or imminent death, clouds of swarming nanites, terraformed and modified landscapes that defy purpose, and of course, the 'numenera'. In this the Ninth World, people look upon the wonders of the past, knowing that it was achieved through technological means—not magic, but knowing that they have lost the means to create it or in many cases, to use it as it was originally intended.

The people of the Ninth World are humans, though some are abhumans—mutants, crossbreeds, the genetically engineered, and their descendants, or they are visitants, who have come to Earth, but are not native to it. They reside in the Steadfast, a collection of kingdoms and principalities that exist under the watchful benevolence of the Amber Pope, whose Aeon Priests of the Order of Truth revere the peoples of the past and their knowledge and technology. The Order of Truth not only studies the past and its technologies, it tries to find a use for them to the betterment of the peoples of the Steadfast. The peoples of the Ninth World make use of the technology that they can scavenge—and which the Aeon Priests tell them is safe to use, turning it into armour, weapons, and everyday devices and tools to enhance the medieval technology they currently possess. In particular they employ Numenera—artifacts, cyphers, and oddities— bits of technology leftover from past civilizations, that may have an obvious function; may have once had an obvious function, but what that was has been lost and the device is put to another use; or may have once had an obvious function, but what that was has been lost and can no longer be discerned.

This is the setting for Numenera, a Science-Fantasy RPG set a billion years into the future, designed and written by Monte Cook whose credits include Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, numerous d20 System titles, and of course, his own campaign setting, Ptolus. Originally and very successfully launched on Kickstarter, Numenera is also a post-apocalyptic setting that embraces the weird, though not in the wacky sense of say Wizards of the Coast’s Gamma World or the arch-baroque decadence of Pelgrane Press’ Dying Earth role-playing game or the oppressively rich Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. It does though, embrace a sense of wonder and the wondrous, but in its underlying play, it certainly draws parallels with Gamma World in that the player characters go out into the world and explore the ruins and devices of the past in the hope that they can use them to improve the society of today. In a sense, Numenera is a dungeon bash game, the characters delving across, down, up, and beyond into the wonders of the past to plunder its relics, but the technological and the fantastical elements of the setting push it away from that as does the fact that the characters are not delving necessarily for riches. As a game, Numenera is a contemporary design in that it embraces both rules light mechanics and light storytelling mechanics.

Characters in Numenera are primarily humans in one form or another—visitants are an advanced option and one of three Types—Glaives, Nanos, or Jacks. Glaives are warriors, either wearing heavy armour and wielding heavy weaponry or relying light arms and armour to give them movement and agility. Nanos are sorcerers, capable of tapping into the Numenera to alter reality or learn more about it, wielding ‘Esoteries’ to command nano-spirits. Jacks are somewhere in between, being flexible in what they can do, capable of learning to fight, using ‘Esoteries’, and more. At their core, each character is defined by three stats—Might, Speed, and Intellect, and a descriptive sentence. This sentence has the structure of “I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]”, where the noun is the character’s Type; the adjective a descriptor, such as Clever or Swift, that defines the character and how he does things; and the verb is the Focus or what the character does that makes him unique. For example, “I am a Charming Jack who Murders”. A player will also need to assign some points to the three Stats and choose some options in terms of Background—how the character became a Glaive, Nano, or Jack—and select some skills from the Type. The choice of descriptor and the verb further defines and modifies the character, whilst the Background and the Connection help hook the character into the setting. Characters begin at Tier One and can advance as far as Tier Six, gaining skills and abilities along the way.

The three sample characters attempt to showcase what the system can do. The Glaive is intentionally basic, almost bland, primarily a fighting man in a strange world, so that the Nano and Jack have something to compare with. The Nano is capable of talking to machines and has an innate understanding of numenera, but the downside is that the people around think him odd. The Jack has implants from the past that enable him to manipulate gravity, but does not know where they are from and how they work. The answers might lie with his father, but he has gone missing.

“I am a Strong Glaive who Rages”
Tier One Glaive
Might 17 (Edge 1)
Speed 12 (Edge 1)
Intellect 9 (Edge 0)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Physical Skills: Breaking inanimate objects, Climbing, Jumping, Practiced with all armour, Practiced with all weapons
Fighting Moves: Bash (1 Might), Thrust (1 Might), Frenzy (1 Intellect)
Equipment: Great hammer, broadsword, shield, medium armour, explorer’s pack, 5 shins
Connection: Bouncer in a local bar for a while, the patrons recall me
Origin: Inborn Abilities

“I am a Mechanical Nano who Talks to Machines”
Tier One Nano
Might 08 (Edge 0)
Speed 12 (Edge 0)
Intellect 17 (Edge 1)
Effort 1

Cyphers (3): (Three Cyphers selected by the GM)
Esoteries: Distant Activation (1 Intellect), Hedge Magic (1 Intellect), Scan (2 Intellect), Sense Numenera, Ward
Skills: Identifying & understanding numenera, Machine Affinity, Practiced with light weapons
Equipment: Dagger, book about numenera, bag of tools, 4 shins
Connection: An experiment went wrong and the locals remember you 
Origin: Ports & Plugs
Notes: Unnerving aura

“I am a Graceful Jack who Controls Gravity”
Tier One Jack
Might 11 (Edge 0)
Speed 16 (Edge 1)
Intellect 11 (Edge 0)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Tricks of the Trade: Hedge Magic (1 Intellect), Hover (1 Intellect), Pierce (1 Speed)
Skills: Balance & Careful Movement, (Flexible) Skill, Perception, Physical Performing Arts, Practiced with light & medium weapons, Speed Defence
Equipment: Clothing, bow & arrows, explorer’s pack, pack of light tools, device for determining mass, 8 shins
Connection: Worked alongside his father who has since disappeared 
Origin: A Cobbled Jumble

Mechanically, Numenera uses a single mechanic—the roll of a single twenty-sided die against a Difficulty, ranging from zero up to ten. The actual Target Number is the value of the Difficulty multiplied by three, thus giving a range between three and thirty—any action with a Difficulty of zero is automatic. Modifiers, whether from favourable circumstances, skills, or good equipment, can decrease the Difficulty, whilst skills give bonuses to the roll. A character can also spend points from his Stat pools—on a one-to-one basis—to reduce the Difficulty, though a player should bear in mind that the Stat pools reflect his ability to act and take damage when attacked. The cost of spending points from a Stat pool is reduced by its associated Edge, as are the use of a Glaive’s Fighting Moves, a Nano’s Esoteries, and a Jack’s Tricks of the Trade. In some cases, this will reduce the cost to zero, thus reducing it to an innate action. For example, Huongsem has an Intellect Edge of 1, which reduces the cost of his Distant Activation and Hedge Magic Esoteries—both of which cost one point from his Intellect pool to use—to zero and so he can do them instinctively, whereas with his Scan estorie, he must still expend a point from his Intellect pool to use it, though its cost is reduced from 2 to 1. Results of nineteen indicate a success and a Minor Effect, which might be extra damage in combat or something listed for a character, such as ‘Hitting a Muscle’ for the ‘Carries a Quiver’, which inflicts Speed damage as well as ordinary damage. A roll of a natural twenty also inflicts extra damage as well as a Major Effect. 

While the system is simple enough—even if the GM adds any of the given options—the radical, even elegant aspect to the mechanics is that the GM never, ever rolls a die. So whilst a character rolls to attack as normal, when an opponent attacks him, the character rolls to avoid the attack. Essentially the mechanic focus of the game is always on the player characters and they are always the focus of the action and the story. At the same, the shift for the GM is on running and presenting the story, not the dice rolls, and as a development of this idea, player characters receive Experience Points in again, another radical fashion when compared to other RPGs. First and foremost, they are not earned for defeating opponents, overcoming challenges, and so on, but for finding interesting numenera and making discoveries. Secondly, a player character gains them when the GM ‘intrudes’ on the game in storytelling terms to present the character with a challenge or difficulty, such as his crossbow string snapping whilst in combat or the rope slipping whilst climbing. Accept this ‘Intrusion’ and the character earns two Experience Points, one of which he must give to another character. A player could reject this ‘Intrusion’, but that would cost him an Experience Point. If a character rolled a natural one at any time, the GM can give an ‘Intrusion’ that cannot be bought off. However it comes, a GM ‘Intrusion’ replaces the need for him to roll dice and encourages him to participate in the telling of the story.

Over a third of Numernera is devoted to the setting of the Steadfast, its environs and beyond, literally, The Beyond. This is anything that lies outside of the nine kingdoms of the Steadfast and the Beyond the Beyond is also detailed. One such location Beyond the Beyond is The University of Doors, a place of learning found in an alternate universe that can only be reached via one or more hidden doors—getting to the door could be an adventure in itself. These sections are full of interesting details and places—such as the ‘mud’ city of Nihliesh, built atop an ancient, but immobile city-vehicle; that the lady Anatrea of Castle Aventur hosts salons for scholars and nanos, such is her fascination with numenera; and that a sphere of an unknown black material is rumoured to constantly roll across the Plain of Kataru.  Several organisations besides the Order of Truth, including the Convergence, whose members value Numenera as much as the Order of Truth, but for themselves rather than for society itself; the Angulan Knights, who are dedicated to humanity’s advancement and have the blessings of Order of Truth and ride the great xi-drakes as mounts; and the Jagged Dream, a secret anarchist cult dedicated to engineering conflict on a massive scale, are also detailed. The chapter of critters continues the weirdness of the setting with some odd creatures indeed, like the Sarrak, an eight-foot long cat-like predator that has a three-foot diameter ball of energy as a head. A lovely touch is that for each of the creatures, the GM is given an ‘Intrusion’ which he can use to make the encounter more challenging. So for the Sarak, it can suddenly seize control of character’s device to switch it off or turn it against him as an ‘Intrusion’.

Of course at the heart of Numenera are the numenera themselves, the devices of the past that have been put to uses old and new. They come in three types—Cyphers, Artifacts, and Discoveries and Oddities. Cyphers are one-time use devices, such as a Density Nodule that attaches to a weapon and increases its density and damage capacity for a day or Stim, which decreases the Difficulty of a character’s next action by three steps. Common Cyphers are drugs, medicines, or grenades. More desirable are the Artifacts, as they have greater endurance and more obvious application. It might be an Automated Cook or a suit of Battle Armour, a Hoop Staff that projects images into the bronze hoop at its top that warn of danger, or a Telltale Glass that turns red if poison is ever poured into it. Artifacts are not always perfect and may have quirks that the GM can use as ‘Intrusions’. Lastly, Oddities and Discoveries are interesting finds that do not have in game terms any actual mechanical effects, such as crystal that reforms after being smashed or a ring that when warn, gives the feeling of being caressed by warm hands. They can of course, be sold, but they also add verisimilitude to the Ninth World, being essentially the ephemeral gewgaws and knickknacks of a past age.

Interestingly, the player characters are limited in the number of Cyphers that they can each possess by their Type (Glaive, Nano, or Jack). Possess too many and a character’s Cyphers begin to have side effects, sometimes dangerous ones. The people of the Ninth World know this and distrust those with too many. This limit is both a game mechanic and a setting mechanic. It both enforces the fleeting nature of Cyphers and the need to use—because using them is fundamentally cool—whilst at the same preventing any player from just hoarding them.

The GM is supported with his own section of advice that covers using the rules, creating stories, and bringing the Ninth World to life. All three chapters are well written as befitting the author of the highly-regarded Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Rounding out the volume is a quartet of adventures that do a decent job of showcasing and helping the GM to showcase the mechanics and setting of Numenera. Physically, Numenera is a beautiful book. The artwork works very hard to bring the look and feel of the Ninth World to vibrant life. The writing is assured and the layout tidy. The book is also a pleasure to read and organised well—particularly in the early chapters where the author explains the basics of the setting, the basics of the rules, and so on. A nice touch is the author takes the time to explain to the reader the differences between the world of the twenty-first century and that of the Ninth World.

Despite its size and scope, there is a lightness of touch to Numenera that is not to be found in other post-apocalypse set roleplaying games. It shows most obviously in the ‘player facing’ mechanics, but it is the Ninth World itself that comes to dominate with its weird and its wondrous future displayed both in the art and the description. Numenera is a beautiful book and a beautifully realised and accessible, if alien setting that begs us to explore and discover its fantastical science to build a bright new future.