Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Numenera - a review

It was with some trepidation that I started reading Monte Cook's "Numenera". I'm generally, not a fan of huge RPG books as they tend to be scourged by endless lists of rules for trivial unlikely events, or full of endless sections of character-choice spells that read like the F.T.  So I was pleasantly surprised by Numenera.

It's a 417 page PDF but inside you don't find endless lists of dry material, instead you find endless lists of interesting background that bring his world to life.

So what is the world he's made for us? It's not sci fi, at least in the classic sense. It's not fantasy in the classic sense either, instead it's an unusual blend of the two. The premise is that the game is set on Earth in the future, but billions of years in the future. Mankind as we know it has died away. Civilisations have risen and fallen until at the time of the game the rise and growth of the Ninth World (civilisation) is under way.

Humans, or human like people predominate, but there are other races too. Those that have evolved during previous eons, and some that migrated to Earth across galactic distances during some previous eons. The Earth itself is different too. The animals we know are gone, long gone, others have replaced them, the continents we know are likewise gone. In their place is a strange world littered with relics of the previous ages. From huge underground machines to man made mountains that float through the sky, the previous ages have left their mark.  

Your characters will be denizens of this world. There are three basic character classes, Warrior, Wizard and Rogue. Note that there is no magic in the Ninth World, rather there are ancient artifacts and machines that grant the user magic-like powers. I call it magic because the characters using these uncovered devices more than likely don't know how they work. The technology of the game is an unusual mix of classic medieval fantasy and super science.

A character is likely to write notes with quill and parchment, and be armed with a power lance that can cut rock! The science of this world is retarded, true there are experts here and there who have studied and learnt some of the ancient's secrets, but the majority of people have no knowledge of how they work.

So lets talk about the system. As I said , I had feared a bloated rules-fest, but that's not what we find here! It's a system based around the use of a D20. All tasks are given a Difficulty, you can multiply the Difficulty by 3 to see what you have to roll on the D20. But! Your skills, dice pools, and other bonuses generally change the Difficulty, rather than modify the roll. Thus if you are facing a lock with Difficulty 6, having the skills and equipment to pick it could reduce that difficulty by two levels, down to 4, meaning you only have to roll 12+ to succeed.

I like this concept, it's simple, it's straight forward.

Stats. Simple and straightforward again, with Might, Speed and Intellect you're not getting buried in pointless minutiae. Each stat is also a pool of "Effort" that can be spent to further reduce a tasks difficulty, this leaves your pool drained and it takes time to recover. A very nice touch.

Another nice touch...GM's won't be rolling any dice. None. Players do all the rolling.

And talking of GM's I love the way the GM can challenge the players via a "GM Intrusion". This is quite like  FATE where the GM can tag you're negative aspect, except here he can change things up and increase the chaos or difficulty. But, when they do this, they also hand the player concerned 2xp, and the player hands one of those xp to another player. What a great mechanism! It encourages story complications and player interaction.

Now unlike in D+D, these xp can be spent for a die re-roll. If you are willing to spend a couple you can gain the equivalent of a temporary skill. I know, "temporary skill" sounds a bit dodgy. It's not, if you as the player can justify it, you get the ability. The example given in the book is a good one. While robbing a palace, you notice the locks are all made by a locksmith you knew as a kid and you know the trick of picking them.  This becomes a short-term of local benefit skill.

For 3xp you can get a longer term benefit. So if you live off the land for a while you can spend 3xp and gain a skill at living off the land. Or you could discuss with the GM a +1 on the die in certain circumstances.

Of course you can spend xp to advance a level too.

Yet, the joy I gained from reading this game is not limited to the simple and evocative rules, it's the rest of the book. It is stuffed with background material. Section after section of emotive and inspiring source material, describing the creatures, the lands, the peoples and the environment. But even this is only a beginning. The game embraces the weird, the unexpected and the downright odd.  Your characters walk around waving swords as they assault a castle that's really a crashed ancient spaceship. They dig, not for diamonds, but for the ephemera and refuse of ancient times, always hoping to find an artefact that gives them the power they crave.

Everything in this world, is different from what you'd expect. Despite the map being laid out in exquisite detail with extensive descriptions there is still so much more to discover.

The rules and the background material is not all that's to be found here. There's also an excellent section for the GM. In some games these GM sections simply provide a myriad of new rules. Not here. Instead this section is actually about how to play the game. How to be a good GM, how to insert the excitement and the fun for the players. Truly good material.

After you've read all that good advice you then get four scenarios in this book. These are all very original and bring the "weird" of the Ninth World to life.

As you've probably guessed I liked this game. Everything about this PDF is great. The art is fantastic, the writing is clear, the rules are simple and best of all, the heap of background material is full enough to give you a rich full session during the first play. Go get it now!

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