Monte Cook’s Numenera has been around a while. The easy, simple and incredibly potent Cypher System is no longer limited to the Ninth World either. You can now enter various recursions in The Strange, or pick up the Cypher System Rulebook to use it in a setting of you own choosing.
I’m not intending this to be a (balanced and objective) review of the system, many of those already exist. There are good and bad things about this system; as with most games it comes down to preferences. You may like Numenera, or you may not. It’s entirely up to you and your preferences. Me? I find it intriguing and incredibly liberating and fun! Just so that it’s covered: Numenera would be my game recommendation this holiday.
To me Numenera represents everything my favourite game does not, kind of, in a good way. FFG’s Star Wars roleplaying game is intense, action packed, creative and generative, which the two games share, but they solve the challenges differently. Where FFG puts the main solution (I’m trying to keep this short) in the custom dice, which in turn need interpretation and so on, Numenera only puts a bit of it into the die roll. Numenera, at least how I understand it, lets a lot more happen creatively and narratively without having strict rules and having to adhere to die rolls, skills, talents and so on. Sure a natural 1 means a GM intrusion (no XP awarded), and natural 19 and 20 means some minor or major effect happens. These are minor elements though. The creativity comes in the GM intrusions that do award XP and in how the players use their pseudo-magical items called cyphers to solve situations creatively. Perhaps not even by making a roll. How they narrate and play their characters, how they define their skills, how they use their special abilities, whether or not they’re making an effort when playing out their characters’ actions (see what I did there?). Now, I’m not saying one game is better than the other, obviously, and neither is this; that is the system or mechanics, which I find distinguishes the games so dramatically. Although I do find the Numenera/Cypher system to be more free-form than Star Wars, but that may just be a synergy effect of … (see below)
I guess the main difference I see is obvious and only to be expected; Star Wars is a more limited setting where the premises are stricter, predetermined and where these premises are not left to be determined by the GM. That is to say, while you can do anything you want with the Star Wars RPG, there is an expectation at the very least to keep it “Star Wars.” Not so with Numenera, unless you think “keeping it weird” is an equivalent. (Hint: I don’t think so, I think “weird” equals “my own.”) If you consider “keeping it weird” is an equivalent of “keeping it Star Wars,” then (as the saying goes) you’re doing it wrong. Strong words, I know.
Now, you could say the following about many settings, but personally I’ve never felt it apply to this extent to Forgotten Realms, Middle-Earth, Shadow World, Cyradon, Ravenloft and so on: “This is an open box wherein you can do entirely what you want.” In Numenera you can add or remove premises, your narrative can follow logic and reason (whether real world or internal to the game world itself), or you may choose not to. I know that this is a basic principle of any roleplaying setting, but – to me – the difference lies in this: there is no canon, this is what makes me love Numenera and the Ninth World.
There is no strict framework telling me of important events in the past, present, or to come. There exists fiction, but it is mainly short stories and it is not tied to a grand, world-spanning (or galaxy-spanning for that matter) meta-plot of good and evil (or chaos and harmony, or whatever). There is certainly a lot lurking beneath the surface, but you as a reader/GM are never told: “This is how it is. This is how it should be.” I know that most games try to avoid this, but most well established franchises (like Star Wars, Middle-Earth or Forgotten Realms) have too much history to practically allow complete freedom. Star Wars has the film, comics, games and books. Forgotten Realms is similarly shaped by games and books. Middle-Earth … ’nuff said.
The freedom provided through the various Numenera sourcebooks are more enabling than restricting. This is something that has endeared the Ninth World to me. While the production value and quality of the published adventures are not at all up to the level of what FFG has produced, at least not the more closed and linear ones, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it’s certainly not a good thing to provide a linear hack’n’slash fest (I’m looking at you Devil’s Spine [spoiler warning]) to a game where creativity is obviously so much at the centre, where there should be alternative solutions to hacking your way through a bunch of encounters that could be so much more interesting with a bit of investment from the designers.
On the other hand, if you do some background checks of the various areas the adventure takes place, you’ll see that there is a lot of other stuff going on, or potentially going on, if you as a GM is brave enough to include it or use the hints and seeds presented in the Numenera corebook and the Ninth World Guidebook. Perhaps you could find alternate solutions and challenges too… like what happens if the Insidious Choir takes control of the Amber Monolith? Or the Obelisk of the Water God? What about the Charmonde, the capital of Navarene? Perhaps one of you is a Mechanical Jack who Employs Magnetism, this could help you when you’re exploring the catena station and find ways to release the conveyance, and perhaps help you avoid some nasty steel spider creatures. If one is a Stealthy Glaive who Crafts Illusion you could hide from the impending attack on the catena by the tactile hosts. There are many options and alternatives, and creativity should lead the way. And while the published adventures can sometimes seem lacking in this department, the spirit of the game is certainly in the right place. The instant adventure book is, seemingly, better at this as it merely provides a framework, not an obviously linear order in which the adventure is supposed to play out.
I contributed to the Into the Night Kickstarter (love me some tech-sci-fi-fantasy!), so I’ve had a bit of time to look at the first of the books to come out of it. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, I thought maybe some species and new worlds, space stations and the “normal” stuff you get, or hope to get. I wasn’t completely off the mark, but at the same time, it’s not giving you what you expect in the way you expect it – at least not me, but I’m new to this particular franchise (oh and there wasn’t any new species to play by the way.) So. It’s adding night travel (space travel), spacecraft (aptly named nightcraft) and then it provides the premises for our solar system, some phenomena and places here, and elsewhere. Because it’s a world without a canon–without a strict timeline going towards something specific or coming from something specific–it provides information about these places more like story seeds for inspiration, being vague on how things work, why things are as they are and so on. This freedom can be daunting, as it could require some/a lot of thinking if you want to plan the minutiae of a session and/or the campaign (or if you want to let your players know exactly how something works), but at the same time this vagueness is part of the premis of the setting: No one really knows anything substantial. The confusion of your players will experience should mirror those of the characters.
This is, in my mind, a good thing. It allows you as a GM to shrug when the players ask how something works; they may ask for an Intellect check, let them roll. Even if they succeed you only need to explain it in terms that could or would make sense to their characters: “It seems to be partly mechanical in nature, with certain (electro)magnetic principles serving as a buffer between the cogs and some seemingly chemical process that powers the device. There’s a slot with room for that strange looking piece of numenera you found in the hands of the dried out corpse a few levels up. Either this machine will recharge it, or that numenera will add power to whatever process is going on here… you’re not entirely certain, but there is an error message flashing on the display…” The way the game is produced demands investment from both players and the GM to create the stories and the world. I guess you could say it like this: “It’s not a finished product, it needs one more element: you guys!” Qi or Charmonde can only become interesting and populated if there is proper investment from the GM and the players.
Into the Night, much like the core book and the World Guidebook, provide locales, personae and potential conflict and events, intentions, purposes and agendas, but only to the level of: “Hey aspiring/experienced GM, look at these things, use them (or don’t), they could serve as inspiration to you and your players to use as is or to make up your own. See the level of crazy we’re aiming for? Try to top us! Don’t like the level of weirdness? No problem, tone it down. We don’t judge. Have fun!”
Our own moon is in somewhat of a confused temporal state, or is it? Travel to Naharrai, the green planet, third from the sun (Earth is number two this far in the future), inhabited by two interesting species (one weird with screens as heads …?). You could go through one of the stargates (yeah, I know, they call it World Doors (or more specifically U-i-Nstor Gateway), but they are obviously stargates) and end up, for instance, on the Gloaming or Perelande. Perelande is a watery planet covered by a hard, organic crust about 40 cm thick, it is inhabited by three different sentient species, the most recent a machine intelligence with little or no experience with organic life forms. The Gloaming is an Alderson disk; a huge platter with a sun resting in a hole in the centre. It’s only reachable through the world door stargate thing, as approach by ship will most likely be met with an extremely efficient and lethal defensive system (at least that’s how I’m going to play it). The Gloaming is in perpetual light from the sun, there’s no sunrise or sunset. It is serving as the battleground between forces of constancy and change (much like Vorlons and Shadows?). The massive plate is too big to map out in any level of detail, obviously, but the book provides a map covering one inhabited area belonging to the Confederation of Iltegu. The area is massive by the way, but still only covering a small fraction of the disk. You could also travel to the Swarmstar and walk (and live) on space (manta) rays.
What strikes me about the Ninth World and the game system is the ease of how they work together, how it becomes less about mechanics and minutiae of a system, how it interacts with the setting and how it becomes more about the story, the world, the action and the fun. I have introduced three entirely new players to roleplaying with this game and they’re coming back for more, they really want to explore the world and their characters. One of these players has been a skeptic for years, but enjoyed it tremendously. He was the first one to say: “We have to do this again” even before the first session was over.
The challenge for many, myself included, with the Ninth World can be the fact that it’s not following a canon, it’s not supplying you with “hard facts,” that is, it supplies you mainly with inspiration: “soft facts.” This may of course change in time, but fingers crossed it won’t. At the moment only a fraction of the Ninth World is mapped and fleshed out. The super continent on the Earth is huge, more or less symmetrical and with some recurring features. It is massive. That can’t really be stressed enough I think. This means that there is more than enough space to make your own stuff and use what has been made, and will be made, to fill your game for years to come – and if the Earth is not enough, there’s the Gloaming. This massive plate spans the whole massive circumference of a sun, covering areas from blistering hot, to habitable (in human terms) to chilly cold wastelands too far away from the sun. It contains lands and areas many times the size of the Earth, on both sides of the disc.
Your own creations, cyphers, artifacts, descriptors, foci and so on are easy to implement. While the guidelines can seem rudimentary, it works quite well – and the game needs it. That is, there’s a whole bunch of everything out there, but making more, putting your own twist on things, adding new species, new societies – the game thrives on it, your game will thrive on it. I had to create a whole new species (that is descriptor) for one of my players as she wanted to play a birdman. Granted I didn’t come up with everything on my own, but the ease of which someone wrote up a suggestion for me, that I then could tweak and adjust to the player’s and my needs… In short: awesomely easy. Sure there may be a balancing issue, but even that doesn’t seem too problematic considering the minimalist approach of the game mechanics and shortage of numeric variables on the character sheet.
As I said at the start of this ordeal, this is a biased non-review. I am just so incredibly impressed that someone could make a fantasy game (that is not Star Wars) that I would actually get this fired up by – I thought those days were over.