Numenera: Why to Play

In a similar vein to the last few days, there’s another product by the same game company – their flagship product, really – that I have a certain fondness for, and today I’m going to explain why you might want to consider trying it out. The name of it is Numenera, and the system it uses is what was tweaked into the Cypher System.

The premise is simple enough – it’s set in the far-distant future, one billion years from now; there have been at least eight grand supercivilizations that developed technology capable of feats that might as well be magic from our perspective. The debris of these lost worlds is now scattered across the world, the solar system has been engineered by each civilization in turn, and now, somehow, humanity has been returned to the world amid the fallen wonders and strange ruins of the worlds that were.

It is, more than anything else, an excuse to play a fantasy game without caring about anachronisms. If you want to let people who are effectively wizards and warriors zoom around on swoop bikes, you can. If you want a massive robot to attack the town without having to couch it as a golem and then come up with reasons why the PCs can’t make one, you can. If you want to have echoes of familiar places and names, you most certainly can.

You can nab whatever exotic and fantastic locations you want to, from cities built like wasp nests around towering spires of a seemingly unbreakable alien metal to deserts of powdered glass and churning nanotechnology to places where the very laws of physics are bent and broken in baffling ways. It’s an excuse to play up the strange and the weird, to let your most bizarre imaginings from your childhood out to play. The first major adventure has PCs exploring riding an ancient supersonic maglev train, fighting psychically aware viral masses, and harassing underwater civilizations to keep themselves from being eaten by alien parasites.

In the games of it I’ve run so far, a jive-talking techno-wizard with power over lightning and a murderous sneak-thief were hired to retrieve ancient relics from a flying fortress, tangled with a ‘demon’ made of light that his in mirrors, and tried burning down half a city to get a healing artifact back from a thief, and a dream-soaked mountain of muscle paired up with a vengeful telekinetic to rescue a bunch of mesmerized townsfolk from an egotistical manipulator of magnetism in the heart of a derelict starship infested with acid-spewing humanoid slug-things. At no point did the game bog down on rules or arguments over what can or can’t be done.

The mechanics are simple and flexible, with everything that could oppose the players having a level from 1 to 10, and difficulty arranged by multiples of 3 according to the obstacle’s level. A locked door, and angry brain-eating cyborg wolf-beast, a puzzle of shifting color-coded lasers, and the challenge of navigating a party among the social elite of a city that worships mutants can all be codified the same way. Characters can be distilled down to a single line of text – things like a “Tough Nano who Wears a Sheen of Ice” for a surprisingly well-armored wizard-analogue, or a “Mechanical Glaive who Fuses Flesh and Steel” for a heavily mechanical cyborg super-soldier who can wade right into battle with the best of them, or an “Intelligent Jack who Explores Dark Places” for a rogue-like character who might bear a striking resemblance to Indiana Jones.

More than that, it’s a game that encourages creativity – the most wonderful treasure are the cyphers, one-use items that can have wild and unpredictable abilities, which are universally pieces from older and much larger machines. That cylinder that explodes when you throw it? That was actually a fuel cell for a massive war mech. The clear lens that flashes you into light, teleports you a long range, and then turns you corporeal again? That was part of a communication network, and that was just the residual charge of use. The squidgy bit of organic matter that looks kind of like a bit of brain that grafts itself to you and grants you a skill of some bizarre and exotic science? It’s the last still-living bit of what was once a massive library of the collective skills, knowledge, and wisdom of a past age of the world.

And each of these one-use items can be readily replenished, so you’re encouraged to use them as creatively as possible to overcome your obstacles. That light-teleport lens might be something you can use to impress people at that party. The explosive might spew soot into the laser grid, revealing the only safe path through. The skill you get might let you puzzle out how to repair this ancient war mech and take it stomping toward the giant blue fungal horror enroaching on your town to save everyone.

If there exists any game system that can recapture the excitement of an old-time roleplayer’s early games without delving back into the overly complicated morass of old-school rule systems, Numenera is it. I encourage you to check it out, and maybe join me next week when I’ll be assembling a Numenera adventure here at the Renegade Octopus.

Numenera: Why to Play

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