Numenera: The Overview

This week and perhaps next we’ll be going over Numenera; like last week, I’ll be looking at it from the context of a hypothetical group of players, and after we do an overview of the basics of the game we’ll go over the process of how that group generates their characters. After that, we’ll look at how a hypotheticla Numenera GM might construct an adventure for this group, and we’ll even detail the adventure and rewards that go with it.

Unlike the Cypher System, Numenera – which came first – has a very distinctive science-fantasy vibe to the way it was designed. Character types come in the form of Glaives, who are the powerful warriors of the setting. They excel in the use of arms and armor (or no arms or armor, depending on the Focus in question), rely primarily on Might and/or Speed Pools, and while they certainly appreciate the mysterious power of the numenera – the ancent relics of the past worlds – they aren’t as versed in them as others might be. That said, nothing’s stopping a person from making a glaive whose idea of opening a fight is setting off a fireball in the middle of their foes.

Nanos, by contrast, are the masters of the mind by default – somewhere between priest, wizard, and scholar of the past worlds, they have supernatural-seeming powers derived from their understanding of the technology of the past. Even their name, nano, suggests that much of their power comes from an ability to interact with the nanotechnology-soaked world on a the level of those machines. Usually not very skillful with weapons and only lightly armored in a conventional sense, they can still be fearsomely durable. Skill in comprehension of the numenera and use of their Intellect Pool tend to be hallmarks of nanos, but you can certainly find ‘wizard with a sword’ types out there.

The last of the types is the jack – as in the jack-of-all-trades, who borrows a bit from both other types as well as doing a bit of their own thing. A natural fit for the role of rogue, jacks can still cover quite a wide range of character options, from a rough and tumble fighter who likes to mix it up to a more cerebral sort who explores ancient mysteries and ruins of the past right on to someone whose only appreciation of the strange world around them is whether or not it can make them a few coins in the process.

The main thing to keep in mind when surveying these character options is that each one may suggest a particular kind of character, but the nature of Numenera – of the Cypher System as a whole – is that you can flavor those types via selections of descriptor and focus to give them a feel that is wholly unique. A Tough Nano who Wears a Sheen of Ice is going to be an imposing figure for any regular NPC to experience, while a Swift Glaive who Needs No Weapons is going to be completely unassuming outside their relative fitness.

Numenera was the system that introduced the core ideas of the Cypher System – ten levels of difficulty, divided into threes; players roll almost all the dice; six tiers of character capability; the concept of descriptors, types, and foci; and so much else. It also suggested that, by being a billion years into the far future, people don’t have to worry about things like anachronisms. The PCs can have a roll of durable plastic bags to stuff things in, or a set of binoculars, despite carrying around swords and wielding what appears to be magic. Where some other games have encouraged grognard pride in being able to name and describe the various types of polearms and whether or not they’d be of any use in a fight in a cave, Numenera is among those that gently suggest that perhaps it’s okay to not directly adhere to details unless the group actually feels doing so would add to the fun.

Cyphers, in Numenera, are the essential component – bits of weird technology and alien machinery repurposes from their original tasks, whatever those might hae been. The explosive device your character is carrying might have been a combustion chamber in an engine, a battery, a conduit for some hyperdimensional energy, a graviton condenser, or something even weirder. The ball of goo that you can squeeze to make a short-lived lightsaber equivalent might have been a focusing lens of an omnidirectional laser, a bearing in a signaling device, or the egg from a creature that belonged to a past world that might have one day hatched into a creature capable of sailing the interstellar winds of dark matter. Their existence is both the definition of character evolution and player ingenuity.

The key theme of Numenera is one of discovery – humanity is only recently re-emerged on the face of the Earth through unknown means and for unknown reasons. The only race that might know – the octopi who dwell in the deep oceans, slowly growing and evolving over geological time – have no interest in helping to enlighten the revived scions of Earth. At least eight supercivilizations have dwelled upon the Earth and either abandoned it or perished, and there’s no promise that it was only eight or that they all arose on the Earth. As such, the mysteries of the Ninth World are vast and deep, and the largest rewards of experience and treasure come to those who venture into the unknown places in search of the secrets of the past.

It’s an unusual take on the world, since defeating opponents doesn’t grant XP the way it does in many other games, and that frees players up to get innovative with their problem-solving in ways that they generally might not otherwise. When the goal is to get the ancient artifact away from the abhuman tribe and take it back to the Aeon Priest, but observation reveals that the abhumans keep a nasty kind of ultradimensional parasite in check, the plan to distract the abhumans, snatch the artifact, and run away becomes measurably more viable than simply killing the tribe and looting the artifact from their blood-soaked settlement.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a hypothetical group of players and the characters they might create to showcase how Numenera can handle both typical fantasy and exotic sci-fi concepts in the same group without a hiccup.

Numenera: The Overview

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