Numenera: The Review

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Gamers will do what you reward them for doing.  They can come to hate you for that.
That’s one of the tenets of designer Mark Rosewater.  He says that gamers will do whatever you encourage them to do via a game’s rules, even if what you’re asking them to do is not fun.  Do your rules reward players who keep track of money down to the last copper piece, providing extra XP for people who treat the game like it was Accountants and Assets instead of Dungeons and Dragons?  Well, they’ll do it, even if there’s no one stopping them from discarding that rule… and they’ll come to believe your game is a tedious slog.  So, Rosewater says, you have to be very careful about what sorts of play your rules incentivize.
D&D, unfortunately, encourages the wrong things.
D&D has been trying to accentuate the roleplaying aspect for years, but in the end, the main function for getting XP is killing monsters and stealing treasure… so that’s all most players do.  The ill-advised D&D Fourth Edition changed the game into the all-combat system, basically assuming the roleplaying would arise organically and turning the game into a miniatures fighting game – which immediately looked inferior to the computer-handled combat of World of Warcraft, and D&D’s been struggling to regain its footing.
Numenera, Monte Cook’s latest RPG, attempts to reward different behaviors.
Numenera feels like an experienced DM stripping D&D down to its core and trying to refocus it on storytelling. The mechanics are clean, relatively simple, and emphasize story complications.  You no longer get XP for killing monsters, you get them for story complications.
 
Which is to say that the GM says, “Okay, you’re climbing that ledge into the Baron’s lair, and it’s going too easily.  I’ll throw in a GM Intrusion; you grab a loose rock, which tumbles out of your hands, hits your head, and you begin to fall.”  The player can choose to refuse the GM intrusion, in which case he has to pay 1 XP for a smooth climb, or he gains 2 XP as a reward for story complication – and has to give one of those XP away to a player immediately.
XP, in turn, are a more dynamic resource than most games.  You can save XP to level up, but you can also burn a point of XP to reroll a die, have another player reroll their die, make a task easier, and so forth.  Monte estimates about half a player’s XP will be spent making the game easier, which in turn gives the players a little more control than the usual frustrating “I’ve rolled four critical misses in a row!” dependence on dice.
This clever little twist would be notable in roleplaying alone, as it’s got the right incentives; you don’t get XP for killing monsters, but rather for allowing more interesting things to happen in the game.  You can have a very boring game, if you want, but then you’ll get no experience.  And so the DM can, as the guidebook notes, subtly railroad you; if you want the players to be captured, rather than fudging die rolls, you instead keep intruding until the odds are stacked against them, which gives them more of a reward and makes it feel a little more natural.
The rest of the game feels surprisingly refreshing, designed to deal with common problems in roleplaying.  Characters love spending hours tweaking their characters, but that means that DMs often spend tedious hours creating NPCs in the same system.  Solution?  NPCs are built using an entirely different and quicker system, so you can generate a monster in twenty seconds.  GMs often have problems setting the difficulties of various tasks thanks to lots of tables and modifiers.  Solution?  Monte creates an absolute table of difficulties from 0 (anyone can do it without effort) to 10 (the maximum doable by humans, the stuff of legends), and sets it up so that it’s trivial for a GM to figure out how hard this door is to unlock.
The end result is clean, stripped, efficient.  It feels like the game is working for you; in D&D, there were so many rules it felt like you often had to battle the system in order to remember how to do something, but Numenera is working in your direction.  There’s even a large section where Monte talks to you, the GM, directly about the intent behind these rules, with lots of admirably concrete and crunchy examples about how you’d use them in real life.
The setting, alas, is a touch less successful.  Numenera takes place in a far-future Earth, with people living in the detritus of long-dead civilizations, emphasizing mysterious futuretech.  That is very evocative, and works wonderfully.  Less so are the kingdoms and geography of the world, which aren’t nearly as memorable as the setting; you have all sorts of semi-generic places like The Seafaring Trader City and The Kingdom Riven By Civil War, which feel just a tad underimaginized for such a rich and crazy world.  Admittedly, I’m spoiled by Monte’s rich imagination at work in Planescape, where each plane was a reflection of one of the classic alignments, but it’s disappointing to have such a bizarre and rifty world with a layer of old medieval history plopped on top.
(The sample adventures, however, are richly imagined – and there are four of them, which I think do a better job at bringing out the setting than the tour through the lands.  This is a significant saving grace, and there’s even an added adventure for Kickstarter backers.)
Also slightly disappointing: cyphers, which are one-shot, mysterious, salvaged items characters carry to have very potent powers they can only use once.  This is a conscious design choice, and a very good one, to give players a constant flow of exciting, above-their-paygrade powers to dazzle with.  Yeah, it gets weary when a character teleports out of every danger, but the cyphers are sketchily working things forced to do duties they were never designed to, so having an excuse to have a character teleport once into the Duke’s bedroom – when, say, he began to fall from a ledge – leads to the stuff of legends.  Which is exciting!  It’s great to have a constant stream of new powers to toy with!
Alas, given how often you’re supposed to give cyphers out – supposedly characters should burn through 1d6 of the devices per session, and have them replenished – there’s just not enough variety for my tastes.  There are a hundred sample cyphers, which seems like a lot, but I know from long experience on the Wand of Wonder table will grow stale quickly.  So I was hoping for a thousand of them to start with.  One suspects other numenera tables will be brought out stat, but for such a critical aspect of the game – which was almost named after the cyphers – I would have liked more fleshing.
Still, this looks to be one of the best new games in a long time, and it accomplished what a good game should do: it has me ravenous to play it.  The next step is clearing my schedule to see when I can do it, and assembling enough players to bring it on, and personally?  I can’t wait to start bringing people through the Ninth World.  If you’re interested, and you should be, I’d definitely pick up a copy now.  Because though I have yet to run a session, it looks like it rewards all the right things for both GMs and players, and that will allow wonderful games to emerge organically.

4 Comments

  1. Richard
    Aug 12, 2013

    I used to use completion of events as XP rewards. One thing I always hated was the sheer amount of XP needed to level . As characters increased in level games got stale, as the level was so far away. Added to that, the hack and slash, look for every GP thing got even more stale as yo had to hack down whole armies to get enough XP to level. (this was 2nd edition BTW)
    So I added completion awards to my games. Finish key encounters, find things within the game, react to a situation as your character should and “BAM” XP rewards.
    this worked really well. One of my friends used them for a Ravnloft campaign, and it really changed how the players reacted.

  2. Ryan Chaddock
    Aug 12, 2013

    I ran a weekly playtest group for Numenera and it was so fun that I ended up running a second one as well. Even in playtest, with little setting to work with, the game was amazing because the rules made us play well.

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 13, 2013

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad to see, and now want to run it!

  3. Long time player
    Aug 30, 2013

    I’ve been playing off and on since I was fifteen, I am thirty-four now. In my groups we always used the books as guidelines. I don’t think there was a time where we adhered strictly to the books.
    Giving exp for completion of story lines and events has always been a part of our games. We always tried to have a balance between slash and hack and interesting story lines.
    As for overall exp? Sometimes we wouldn’t bother with tallying up exp, the DM would just hand out levels, or half levels.
    I like your idea, but it’s not new. Perhaps you’ve played with too many groups that focus on hack and slash?
    Thank you for the article!

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