Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 23 June 2024

Discovering Numenera

Civilisations rise and fall, and even transcend, and they all leave their mark on their landscape. Islands of crystal float in the sky. Massive machines, some abandoned, some still operational, wheeze and groan to purposes unknown, thrust high into the sky and deep into the ground. A plain of broken glass stretches to the horizon. The Iron Wind whips across the landscape, fundamentally transforming all caught within its cloud, flesh and non-flesh alike, into new forms. Enormous humanoid statues drift aimlessly across the sky, their purpose long forgotten. A castle continues to expand and grow as more people settle within its walls. The Great Slab stands thousands of feet high and almost ten miles square, a block of synth, metal, and organics, its sides slick with a reddish-black oil that prevents anyone from climbing it or discovering the entirely different ecosystem on its top. Scattered across this landscape borne of nanotech, gravitic technology, genetic engineering, spatial warping, and superdense polymers are smaller devices, all together called numenera. Artifacts that protect the wearer with an invisible force field, arm him with a weapon with the power of the sun, or a pair of lenses that allow the viewer to read any language. Cyphers that when thrown detonate causing a singularity to rip at the fabric of the universe, ingested give the ability to see ten times as far as normal, or fires an anchoring magnet which then creates a bridge. Oddities like a musical instrument which only unmelodic notes, a cape that billows in the wind even if there is no air, or a synth disc that restores a single piece of rotten fruit or vegetable to being fully edible. These are all waiting to be discovered, utilised, and even traded for. The ill-educated may look at all of this and call it magic, but most know that these are the remnants of past ages civilisations—civilisations that reached the far depths of space, engineered planets, toyed with reality, sidestepped into other parallels, and more, waiting to be found, examined, and their secrets revealed. Many devices can be found and worked, some not, but all know that the knowledge of how they are made has long been forgotten. This is the Ninth World.

The Ninth World is our Earth a billion years into the future. It is one continent, still settled 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. Many 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 mediaeval 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 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.

The is the setting for Numenera, a Science Fantasy roleplaying game of exploration and adventure the very far future, originally published in 2013 by Monte Cook Games. It is often forgotten what a big hit Numenera was, introducing a style of play that looked familiar—the exploration of labyrinths and complexes—but placing it in a very different genre and thus shorn of that familiarity and its historical constraints. Numenera would go on to win the 2014 Origins Award for ‘Best New Roleplaying Game’, the 2014 Ennie Award for Best Writing, the 2014 Ennie Award for Best Setting, and 2014 Ennie Award for Product of the Year, be the basis of its own set of mechanics in the form of the Cypher System, and introduce new ideas in terms of roleplaying, such as player-facing mechanics and Game Master Intrusions, a new way of narratively increasing tension and awarding Experience Points. Funded via a Kickstarter campaign, the second edition of Numenera is split into two volumes, Numenera Discovery and Numenera Destiny. Of these, Numenera Discovery, presents the setting of the Ninth World with everything needed to play including character creation, rules, Cyphers, a bestiary, advice for the Game Master, and some ready-to-pay scenarios. Numenera Destiny expands the setting with new Player Character archetypes, salvaging and crafting rules, numenera, scenarios, and more, all designed to facilitate campaign play in charting the future of the Ninth World is part of that play.

Numenera Discovery opens with some setting fiction, ‘The Amber Monolith’, before going on to explain what the Ninth World is and how it differs from other roleplaying games and even from how the world is viewed in the here and now, whether that is a more cosmopolitan outlook, an acceptance though not an understanding of the technology of the past, and a medievalism without the burden of history. The rules and mechanics are clearly explained before the character creation is explained.

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 on 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 an Intelligent Nano who Talks to Machines”. 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. An appendix details some non-human character options.

Here, though, are the first major changes to Numenera Discovery. Whilst Foci remain relatively unchanged, there have been changes to the Descriptors. Notably, this includes both ‘Creates Unique Objects’ and ‘Leads’, which have been removed as essentially what they did is covered in the second book, Numenera Destiny. One new addition is ‘Speaks With a Silver Tongue’, which makes the character highly persuasive. Of the three Types, the Glaive and the Jack have undergone tweaks to varying degrees to make both more interesting to play. The Fighting Move options for the Glaive now include ‘Aggression’, ‘Fleet of Foot’, ‘Impressive Display’, and ‘Misdirect’, as well as ‘No Need for Weapons’ and ‘Trained Without Armour’. These allow for some interesting combinations, such as ‘Aggression’, which grants the Glaive an asset on attacks whilst hindering Speed rolls against attacks, and ‘No Need for Weapons’, which increases damage from unarmed attacks, so the Glaive becomes a brawling berserker. ‘Fleet of Foot’ lets a Glaive combine movement with actions, and with ‘Misdirect’ which enables him to deflect attacks at him back at others, he could zip around the battlefield disrupting attacks.

Whilst the Nano is unchanged, the biggest changes have been made to the Jack. Named for ‘Jack of all trades’, the Jack never quite felt distinctive enough between the Glaive and the Nano. Although there is some crossover still between the Glaive and the Jack with abilities such as ‘Trained in Armor’ and ‘Fleet of Foot’, but the new abilities like ‘Create Deadly Poison’, ‘Critter Companion’, ‘Face Morph’, ‘Link Senses’, and others all serve to make the Jack unique rather than being a bit of both the Glaive and the Nano, but not fully one or the other. One major addition is a set of suggested Cyphers that each character type can begin play with.

“I am a Clever Jack who Speaks With a Silver Tongue”
Tier One Jack
Might 10 (Edge 0)
Speed 12 (Edge 0)
Intellect 16 (Edge 1) Effort 1
Cyphers (2): machine control implant, visage changer
Oddities: Small square cage that puts whatever single creature is inside it into stasis
Tricks of the Trade: Face Morph (2+ Intellect), Late Inspiration (3+ Intellect), Flex Skill
Skills: Interactions Involving Lies or Trickery (Trained); Defence Rolls to Resist Mental Effects (Trained); All Tasks Involving, Identifying, or Assessing Danger, Lies, Quality, Importance, Function, or Power (Trained); Persuasion, Deception, and Intimidation (Trained); Lock Picking (Trained) Inability: Studying or Retaining Trivial Knowledge (Hindered)
Equipment: Book of Favourite Words, Clothing, two weapons, explorer’s pack, pack of light tools, 8 shins Connection: You’re drinking buddies with a number of the local guards and glaives.
Origin: Born Lucky

Mechanically, Numenera Discovery—as with the other Cypher System roleplaying games which have followed—is player facing—and in its original version, arguably was one of the first systems to be player facing. Thus, in combat, a player not only rolls for his character to make an attack, but also rolls to avoid any attacks made against his character. Essentially this shifts the game’s mechanical elements from the Game Master to the player, leaving the Game Master to focus on the story, on roleplaying NPCs, and so on. When it comes to tasks, the character is attempting to overcome a Task Difficulty, ranging from one and Simple to ten and Impossible. This is done on a twenty-sided die. The target number is actually three times the Task Difficulty. So, a Task Difficulty of four or Difficult, means that the target number is twelve, whilst a Task Difficulty of seven or Formidable, means that the target number is twenty-one. The aim of the player is to lower this Task Difficulty. This can be done in a number of ways.

Modifiers, whether from favourable circumstances, skills, or good equipment, can decrease the Difficulty, whilst skills give bonuses to the roll. Trained skills—skills can either be Practised or Trained—can reduce the Difficulty, but the primary method is for a player to spend points from his relevant Stat pools. This is called applying Effort. Applying the first level of Effort, which will reduce the target number by one, is three points from the relevant Stat pool. Additional applications of Effort beyond this cost two points. The cost of spending points from a Stat pool is reduced by its associated Edge, which if the Edge is high enough, can reduce the Effort to zero, which means that the Player Character gets to do the action for free—or effortlessly!

Rolls of one enable a free GM Intrusion—essentially a complication to the current situation that does reward the Player Character with any Experience Points, whereas rolls of seventeen and eighteen in combat grant damage bonuses. Rolls of nineteen and twenty in combat can also grant damage bonuses, but alternatively, can grant minor and major effects. For example, distracting an opponent or striking a specific body part. Rolls of nineteen and twenty in non-combat situations grant minor and major effects, which the player and Game Master can decide on in play. In combat, light weapons always inflict two points of damage, medium weapons four points, and heavy weapons six points, and damage is reduced by armour. NPCs simply possess a Level, which like the Task Difficulty ranges between one and ten and is multiplied by three to get a target number to successfully attack them.

Experience Points under the Cypher System are earned in several ways, primarily through achieving objectives, making interesting discoveries, and so on. However, they are not awarded for simply killing monsters or finding treasure. There are two significant means of a Player Character gaining Experience Points. The first is ‘GM Intrusion’. These are designed to make a situation and the Player Character’s life more interesting or more complicated. For example, the Player Character might automatically set off a trap or an NPC important to the Player Character is imperilled. Suggested Intrusions are given for the three character Types and also for all of the ninety or more Foci. When this occurs, the Game Master makes an Intrusion and offers the player and his character two Experience Points. The player does not have to accept this ‘GM Intrusion’, but this costs an Experience Point. If he does accept the Intrusion, the player receives the two Experience Points, keeps one and then gives the other to another player, explaining why he and his character deserves the other Experience Point. The ‘GM Intrusion’ mechanic encourages a player to accept story and situational complications and place their character in danger, making the story much more exciting.

The major mechanical addition is the ‘Player Intrusion’, the reverse of the ‘GM Intrusion’. With this, a player spends an Experience Point to present a solution to a problem or complication. These make relatively small, quite immediate changes to a situation. For example, a Cypher or Artifact is expended, but it might be that the situation really demands the device’s use again, so the player decides to make a ‘Player Intrusion’ and at the cost of single Experience Point, give it one more use of charge or a player wants to reroll a failed task.

Creatures and numenera—Artifacts, Cyphers, Oddities—receive their own sections. There is a wide selection of both in Numenera Discovery, though with very little change between this edition of the roleplaying game and the first. A nice touch is that for each of the creatures, the Game Master is given an ‘Intrusion’ which he can use to make the encounter more challenging. One notable aspect of Numenera Discovery is that 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 Player 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.

A good fifth of Numenera Discovery is dedicated 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.

Similarly, a good tenth of Numenera Discovery is dedicated to advice for the Game Master on running the game. This covers how to use the rules, how to build a story, and how to realise the Ninth World. There is guidance on how to use GM Intrusions, including as a narrative tool and as a resolution mechanic, along with plenty of examples; handling the flow of information, when to have the players roll dice, how to encourage player creativity, and a lot more. There is advice on running the first few sessions and beyond, as well as suggestions on how to use the Ninth World by shifting the genre, for example, by making it a post-apocalyptic or weird horror setting, a look at what sciences and technologies can be found across the Ninth World, and numerous scenario ideas in addition to the three scenarios already included in Numenera Discovery. The three are each very different. ‘Taker of Sorrow’ is an introductory scenario for both players and the Game Master, an investigation into an outbreak of monsters, weirdly mouthy and emotional lumps of carnivorous flesh, that are plaguing the route the Player Characters are travelling on. It includes some diversions that the Game Master can place in the Player Characters’ way—and even places the second adventure, ‘Vault of Reflections’, nearby as a diversion, but otherwise, ‘Taker of Sorrow’ is a straightforward affair. That second scenario, ‘Vault of Reflections’, focuses on exploration and encounters with the weird technologies left behind by a previous age, whilst the third scenario, ‘Legacy’ is an investigative affair set in and around a university. Notably it uses an abbreviated adventure format that links its various scenes as a flowchart, and relies on a mix of stealth and interaction than the previous two scenarios. All three scenarios are new to this edition and do a decent job of showcasing the types of adventure possible in Numenera Discovery.

Physically, Numenera Discovery is very well presented and put together. Although it needs a slight edit in places, the book is well written, and everything is easy to grasp. Above all, the artwork is excellent and this is a great looking book.

As a second edition, the changes introduced with Numenera Discovery are more adjustments—for example, the tweaks to both the Glaive and the Jack character types and the addition of the Player Intrusion mechanic—to make the roleplaying game more interesting to play rather than a series of wholesale overhauls. Otherwise, the innovative rules and mechanics remain the same and as playable as ever. The fact that Numenera Discovery has not been changed since its publication shows how little needed to be changed to make what was a good game simply better.

Numenera Discovery is a very complete introduction to the Ninth World and more. It has everything that a Game Master and her players need to play Numenera—rules, scenarios, advice, the lot—and it remains the definitive edition of the core rules for Numenera.

No comments:

Post a Comment