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Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Numenera by Monte Cook

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.

This time out, we look at the other large-scale Dungeons and Dragons-influenced game, but one that offers a particularly different environment. That ‘sorcerer’ that fires lightning at you is doing so because she controls ancient nanotechnology to harness the power of electricity. That “+1 sword” Saladin’s character Amil found is really an ancient monofilament sword from thousands of years ago. Howard’s character Morias breaks into places and steals stuff without a sound because he carries an ancient device to draw all sound around him into it and dampen it. And just why is that gigantic amber monolith floating in the sky, thirty miles from town? Technology? Magic? Does the difference even matter?

Welcome to the Ninth World. Welcome to Numenera.

Monte J. Cook is a name that needs little introduction to longtime gamers. One of the major designers of Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons (in particular the Planescape setting), after leaving Wizards of the Coast, he has written numerous third party Dungeons and Dragons products since then. It is based on this large body of work and prior success that the kickstarter for Numenera was wildly successful.

The high concept of the setting will be familiar to readers of genre. Set in the far future, so far as to have the remnants of impossibly high technology to be indistinguishable from magic, the world of Numenera is evocative of Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, Matthew Hughes and others dealing with worlds and societies so removed from ours that even few myths of our world remain.

The conceit is that the world of the setting is the Ninth World. Eight great civilizations over the many millenia have emerged, risen to prominence, and either fallen, gained transcendence or otherwise has passed away. Now a ninth civilization is aborning, and the characters are intended to be members of that civilization. As this civilization grows, expands and rediscovers a wild and mysterious world, so too, the characters will have a chance to grow as well.

“The Core of gameplay in Numenera is to discover new things or old things that are new again.”

The mechanics of Numenera tie in strongly with the aforementioned theme of discovery. Experience points are either awarded by GM intrusion (a method where the GM offers XP to a characters for a complication in their lives), or more commonly, by the process of discovery. Unlike most Dungeons and Dragons-themed games, killing hordes of Margr is going to net you no experience in Numenera. Not unless you discover in the cavern beneath that fortress is a dimensional portal that is duplicating and creating the aforementioned Margrs. That act of discovery is where the experience comes from.

Beyond the change in experience points, the mechanics and character types, although many with new and exotic names, will be familiar to those with a passing knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons, but has its own twists. Like Apocalypse World, the players do all of the rolling (yes, with a d20), for attacking and defending in combat, and to accomplish tasks. There are three basic character types, Glaives (fighters), Jacks (Rogues) and Nanos (Magic-users). Characters are rounded out with bits that both make them unique, and provide hooks both into the setting and other characters, both in a story sense and a mechanics sense. (My ice armor when activated *also* protects Mary’s character Lorthien if she’s standing nearby. Quirky stuff, that numenera!)

The theme of the game is a bit at odds and distinctly divergent from some of the source material. Instead of themes of senescence, or decay, the civilizations of The Ninth World are expanding and exploring. The world is not ending, the greatest glory is not in the past. Discovering the past, and using it, harnessing it, and building on it for a glorious future is the implied goal of the polities of the Steadfast.

The hardcover book is beautifully illustrated, complete with a gorgeous map of the Steadfast, and the areas adjacent–the parts of the world where characters are intended to start. One interesting note about the map is that while many of the locales are named and described in the book, there is a plethora of shadow locations, without names on the map. These are there to reinforce an idea that GMs should learn–these are places to add one’s own locations, societies, and wonders to their own Numenera universe. I applaud the explicit attitude that the world as depicted in the book is just a beginning, and a GM and her players should strive to make their game world their own.

As a nod to a hyperlinked world, the hardcover text also uses a sidenote technique in the book’s wide margins. These can be quotes, references, annotations or even page references to other parts of the book. These provide interconnections between setting and rules, and provide an easy way to refer back to rules and setting at key points. For example, in the entry in the bestiary on the “Xi-Drake”, a type of dragon, a sidenote to The Angulian Knights alerts the GM to an entry that describes the fact that there are people in Numenera who work with, and even ride, the creatures.

Numenera, and even books and games based on its setting, is only the beginning of Cook’s ambition and inspiration, however. The Cypher Engine described here is going to be used in the next Monte Cook game, The Strange. As opposed to going to the far future, The Strange, from what I have seen, seems more inspired by Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity, or Roger Zelazny’s Donnerjack, going for a multiverse sort of feel. (Or, alternatively, a Planescape sort of feel). If anything, this milieu seems even more vast than the already giant playground of The Ninth World. And I have no doubt that Cook has more ideas for the Cypher system even beyond mining these two lines. The future of Numenera and the Cypher system is extremely exciting and seems bright.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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