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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Cosmic Numenera

The Ninth Age, the setting for Monte Cook Games’ Origins award-winning RPG, Numenera is already weird. Its combination of Science Fiction and Fantasy set a billion years in the future brings together all manner of strange devices and uncanny wonders, both great and small. Such devices and wonders may well be ‘magic’, but they may also be technologies, relics of the past ages or civilisations. They all but litter the landscape, from small artefacts known as ciphers to great edifices that hang in the sky without rhyme or reason, whilst creatures unknown to our distant age—alien species, newly evolved animals, bioengineered things, and more, lurk just beyond the edges of the civilisation, just as that current civilisation lurks in the shadows of those past... Which all seems perfectly suited to one further ingredient—Lovecraftian horror!

In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is a mini-supplement designed to add the Cosmic horror of author H.P. Lovecraft to Numenera, to make it even more uncanny, even stranger, and further, unfathomable. Unfathomable to the point where the mental fortitude of the adventurers is threatened and undermined. It describes how to elements of Cosmic Horror to adventures and campaigns set in the Ninth Age, including rules for handling the loss of sanity and its effects, reskinning creatures with Cthulhoid tags, and of course, certain creatures of the Mythos. The supplement comes as a full colour, twelve-page PDF, just 0.9 MB in size.

Divided into three parts, In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera begins with ‘Bringing Lovecraft to the Ninth World’. Here author Monte Cook gets to play a little further with the Arthur C. Clarke Third Law that states that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, for although much of the numenera or devices of the Ninth Age may look like or work like magic, they are actually scientific or technological items, though ones created using knowledge that is now lost. In a Ninth Age lost to the baleful effects of Cosmic Horror, such scientific or technological items are just as likely to be ones created by a science never fathomed by man. Thus the discovery of Lovecraftian Numenera is likely to have unheralded effects and influences. A Lovecraftian Ninth Age will  not only be weirder, but will also push the setting away from exploration and adventure, to one of exploration and horror. Overall, this is a solid introduction to combining the genres.

Of course any encounter with the Cthulhu Mythos requires a sanity check and thus a means to handle sanity loss. Numenera being a simple system means that the new mechanics for are just as simple. Saves against sanity are done as Intellect defence rolls. Should a character’s Intellect be driven to zero, the excess is not passed onto another attribute, but simply lost, whilst the maximum size of the Intellect pool is reduced by one. Should his Intellect pool be permanently driven to zero, then he gains the Mad descriptor. A further means of the effect of sanity can also be effected through GM Intrusions—the latter being one Numenera’s more interesting storytelling mechanics.

The second part of the supplement, ‘Lovecraftian Descriptors and Skins’, gives mechanical means to handle the Mythos. The two Descriptors—descriptors describing how a character does something—are ‘Mad’ and ‘Doomed’. Both suit the additional genre and both have their advantages and disadvantages, but mostly the latter. For example, the ‘Doomed’ Descriptor grants a bonus to a character’s Speed pool as well as skills in perception and Speed defense tasks, plus Intellect defense tasks related losing your sanity. All this because the character is jumpy, wary of danger, defensively minded, and both cynical and pessimistic. Yet the character is also Doomed, so whenever the GM uses an Intrusion on him, the character refuse it nor does he receive XP for accepting it. Now that is undoubtedly harsh, but hey, the character is doomed…!

The Skins are equally simple matters. The three—Non-Euclidian, Squamous, and Unnamable—provide means to adapt the creatures of the Ninth Age to a Lovecraftian horror setting. For example, Non-Euclidian creatures are not only more skilled in Speed defense and in stealth tasks, they can also slip between the spaces to seemingly teleport short distances. Again, useful and simple.

The third and final part of the supplement is devoted to Lovecraftian Creatures. These are few in number, being just four. Which is somewhat disappointing. The four are Deep Ones, Great Race of Yith, Mi-Go, and Shoggoths. Given a page each, these are rather nicely written up, in particular the Great Race of Yith and the Mi-Go, both of which are highly suited to the Numenera setting as they are noted for their scientific, if alien bent. Nevertheless, four such creatures is not enough—and surely Nyarlathotep could have made an appearance!

Physically, In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is well presented. The artwork is very good and the writing clean and simple. If there is an issue with the supplement it is not the uninitiated—the GM will still need to know his Mythos. Either through reading the fiction or having played any one of the Lovecraftian horror RPGs available, it helping that a mix of both is listed in the supplement’s bibliography.

There is almost nothing wrong with In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera. It provides a GM with just about everything needed to add the basic elements of Cosmic Horror to his game, and what does being evocative and interesting. What is wrong with In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is the feeling that there should be more. In fact there should be a full Lovecraftian RPG using the Cypher System—the supplement certainly hints at the possibility. As a side note, this supplement would also work with The Strange, Monte Cook Games’ other RPG.

In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is a pleasingly simple and straightforward supplement. It might well, very much, leave you wanting a lot more, but what it does give is evocative and embodies the weird side of the Mythos.