Monday, June 27, 2022

Game Review: Numenéra (original edition)

Cover, Numenéra
©2013 Monte Cook Games
: Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Marketplace: DrivethruRPGMonte Cook Games
Engine: Cypher System

I am breaking a bit from formula for this review, because I wanted to cover a game that doesn't fit my standard fare of rules -light adventure games and OSR retro clothes. Numenéra is neither of those; is a Science Fantasy game that fits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between classic role-playing game and story game. But it is one I have spent a lot of time thinking about, writing for DMing, and playing over the years. And I believe that if I enjoy it, many of my readers just might, too.

The strangeness of the game, and the elegant way that the game is presented to got me hooked on Numenéra around seven years ago. I collected almost everything published up to 2017, as well as the other three games that were based on the same engine No Thank You, Evil!, the Cypher System and The Strange, had I started the blog back then, I might have been remembered as a Numenéra superfan.

I stopped collecting Numenéra manuals in 2019 when the new edition was announced. I didn't necessarily object to there being a new edition, especially one that was fully backwards compatible with the existing game. I just found it very hard to get a Numenéra group together, while a classic D&D experience or a game of PARANOIA was far easier to find players for. And then I discovered OSR games, and decided it was time to burn my Numenéra PDFs into CDs for safe storage and put them aside.

Part of the problem as well, is that my wife does not enjoy playing with the Cypher System. I will go into some details about that later. I will be including some of her criticisms of the system as well as mine, which may make this one the most thoroughly tested reviews you will have read from me.


Numenéra is set in The Ninth World: Earth as it appears a billion years into the future. In the Ninth World, human beings have recently and mysteriously returned, not for the first time, from total extinction from the face of the Earth.

The Earth of Numenéra has been a host to thousands of advanced civilizations have risen, throve, collapsed, and vanished into the obscurity of history, leaving behind the wonders of technology across the face of the Earth. Among them, spatial distortions that have made the Earth much larger than it once was without changing its gravity, geo-engineering have made a single star-shaped supercontinent, vast rings of indestructible material form walls around paradise-like lands -- which were once the thrusters of an engine that moved the Earth to a new are younger star than the Sun around it which it orbits,

Lost technology is everywhere. The air, life, and soil are rich with nanotechnology. Ruins with miraculous devices can be found dotting the landscape. Terrible mutations, alien monsters, dimensional rifts, and all manner of strange thigs can be discovered just by wandering a little bit away from civilization.

Humanity, being a young race again, does not have much technology of their own. The average community is a little above the Bronze Age in development. However, almost every community is built around some technological marvel that makes life easier. A given village might be built around a shrine that raises people from the dead, a crystal that pours water at regular intervals out of it, or sit among a set of towers that kill non-human sentients with blasts of hypersonic energy, or have a shrine built around talking statue that dispenses wisdom at random intervals. A site with advanced technology is as important as having a water source for selecting the site of a village.

Image from Numenéra, ©️2013 Monte Cook Games 

While the average villager might still be a agrarian peasant, there are people who have mastered the technology for their own uses. By default, the campaign is set in a region called The Steadfast, a collection of nations that are held together by an order called the AEon Priests of the Amber Papacy. The AEon Priests are specialists in salvaging ancient technology and re-engineering it to new and helpful purposes. The average AEon Priest can identify an artifact, build something new out of scrap, and perform a few magical rituals that activate dormant nanotechnology to perform wondrous tasks.

Magicians called Nanos are taught, or are born with, the ability to communicate with and program nanorobots to bend matter and energy. Most of these Nanos are so ignorant the underlying theory that they think that they are casting magic spells. Many of them learn their 'magic' through machines, drugs, or strange wiring in their brain, and aren't even aware of exactly how they control their unusual abilities. Many life forms on the planet are born with cybernetic enhancements that have become heritable thanks to ancient genetic engineering.

Image from Numenéra, ©️2013 Monte Cook Games 

Other PCs include Glaives (warriors) and Jacks, the latter being Jack's of all trade who can manage a little magic, a little combat, and have a lot of helpful skills that put them halfway between a Glaive and a Nano.

Wealth in the steadfast and many connected regions is measured in shins, small bits of ancient technology that are either made of useful material, can be used in making gadgets, or are otherwise capable of being integrated into a practical project. Scales of indestructible ceramic, circuit boards, beads of enduring force field, and coins of conductive metal all would be considered shins.

Player Characters are usually wanderers and adventurers who visit the many ruins dotted across the landscape to salvage shins from structure, and lost artifacts within them. Occasionally they get lucky and find miraculous items such as one-use cyphers or powerful reusable artifacts.

Of course, big discoveries, like devices that can heal the sick or feed the hungry occasionally show up, and prosocial adventurous might take it upon themselves to bring those to a nearby community, or build a community around them. Helping to advance human civilization back to a high-tech age is a major goal of every culture in the Steadfast.

The Ninth World is heavily inspired by the Dying Earth series by Jack Vance, and it would be very easy indeed to play through any of the adventures in the series without too much difficulty. It also draws heavily on the art of "Moebius," Jean Giraud, who was a personal friend of Monte Cook's before his passing. It also draws on some 80s cartoon influences such as Thundarr The Barbarian and He-Man. Overall, it creates a strange, psychedelic, everything goes style of science fantasy that takes a lot of imagination to design adventures for, but can be very satisfying to play.


Anytime an important action's outcome comes in doubt, the GM sets the difficulty level for it. Most environments have a default difficulty level set much like an Index Card RPG. These are set between 1 for very easy to 10 for nearly impossible. If you are in a Level 4 ruin, you are likely going to have Level 4 difficulty tasks for anything not otherwise specified. When a task must be rolled, PCs should argue for the various things they have going for them, such as trained or specialized skills, relevant experience, and narrative advantages. Each advantageous factor is rated as -1 or - 2 to the difficulty. The GM then may likewise add penalties that increase the difficulty by +1 or +2 based on other factors in the narrative.

PCs have three pools, Might, Intellect, and Speed, that start around 10 and can go as high as 30 as the character develops. PCs may spend an amount of relevant pool to represent exceptional effort spent to resolve the tasks. The first point by which the PC wants to reduce the difficulty level costs 3 points from the pool. Each level thereafter costs 2 more. The the number of levels of effort a character can reduce with Effort is limited by the characters Tier (the in-game term for level.) If a character is exceptional in one of those fields, they might also have one or more points of Edge, a permanent discount to any expenditures to that pool. Given that attacks, poison, strange magic, and fatigue all also deplete these pools, and that a character is considered injured if one of them is at zero, cannot act if two are, and is dead when all three reach zero, spending effort is always a risky move.

Once the final difficulty level is calculated based on narrative advantages and disadvantages, skills, and effort, the adjusted level is multiplied be three to determine a target number a character must meet or beat on a 20-sided die. Obviously, tasks with a difficulty level of seven, eight, or nine are impossible unless the PC spends efforts and find ways to stack advantages to lower the difficulty.

Almost everything is expressed very simply in levels. Often a level is all you need to know about a creature unless it is exceptional in some way. Creatures do damage equal to their level of a two player character, and have hit point pools of their own equal to 2-4 times or level based on size. So, a Level 2 NPC will deal 2 damage to a player characters pools if they hit, any d20 roll made against them requires a 6 (Level 2 x 3) or better on a D20 to resolve, and they will likely have four 4-8 hit points depending on how bulky they are. (Most PC attacks seal between 1 and 3 damage based on the weapon.)

An exceptional NPC or creature might be expressed with multiple levels: one base and others that are used for specific kinds of tasks. For example particularly charming NPC might be expressed as Level 3, 5 for Social Interaction.  A particularly devilish trap might be expressed as Level 4, 7 to Detect. Monster entries also tend to include a recommended treasure, and detailed descriptions of some unusual powers, as well as behavioral patterns.

Pools regenerate using a random recovery die roll, which can only be rolled a limited number of times per day. Each roll takes a longer rest to activate.

All rolls are player-facing. A character who is being attacked roles a defense die based on their attackers level, for example; the GM does not roll an attack.

Cover to Taking the Narrative 
by the Tail 
©️2014 Monte Cook Games
One of the more unusual concepts that Numenéra puts forward is the idea of the use of GM fiat being a formalized event. Normally in a game like Dungeons & Dragons, the GM will often decide that something goes wrong. For example, as a player characters are crossing a bridge it might begin to sway. Loud noises might trigger a check for a random encounter. Characters being careless with explosives might cause a cave-in. These are things that are usually done when did narratively make sense or two push the PCs when they are lollygagging and keep the pace of the game up. There is no mechanical requirement.

In Numenéra , these are called GM intrusions or Effects. They also occur in the Player Characters' favor on rolls of 19 or 20 on a d20, against them on a natural roll of 1 or 2, and are encouraged to happen at random intervals throughout the game. As well as when it makes narrative sense. When a GM Intrusion is about to occur, the GM should warn the players that they are beginning an intrusion. The first- or worst- affected player from the intrusion games experience points: one to give to themselves, and one to give to another player of their choice. 

Players may choose to spend experience points to cancel out an intrusion, or at least request the GM change the narrative so that the intrusion does not have severe negative effects. Additionally, a Player Character might also choose to spend experience to request an intrusion such as a critical hit in fact, or some other favorable event.

Experience points are meant to flow fairly quickly in the game. A player may spontaneously spend 1 to 3 for experience points to retroactively grant skills to a player character if they make narrative sense. Character development happens piecemeal, either during or between adventures by expending experience as well. This is detailed below.

The final piece of the Cypher System worth noting are the eponymous cyphers themselves: Cyphers are small devices that the Player Characters cobble together out of salvaged parts in a few moments from of ancient technological debris sitting about. All player characters are assumed to have a sufficient (mostly intuitive) working knowledge of ancient and alien technologies to be able to identify a useful object, pull it out, and wire it to a power source.... If it even needs one.

The cypher creates a powerful and wondrous effect ranging from causing things to levitate, to creating holes in reality, to constructing forts, to healing the injured. The base game has 100 random cypher effects, many of which have sub-tables to develop further specifics. Once a cypher is used, it normally burns out and become useless slag. 

Image from Technology Compendium: Sir Arthour's Guide to the Numeners,
©️2014 Monte Cook Games

Characters may only carry a limited number of cyphers, but finding more in any location with debris or ruins is a matter of rolling a Level 4 task that Nanos are automatically trained in, and a search can yield multiple cyphers. Player Characters are encouraged to use them frequently, discard ones they don't like, and sell them whenever they get to town. In a game of Numenéra being run as designed, PCs should be performing strange miracles almost every scene in the game, thanks to the abundance of cyphers.

What I Loved


Poster for Zachariah 
©️1971 ABC Pictures
The Ninth World is a fascinating setting. It really does capture a good mix of Mobius, the dying earth, and truly surreal pieces like Fantastic Planet or Zachariah.

This is sitting we're almost anything could happen, but there's enough of an idea of what a baseline community is like that you can start with an evocative base.

What really helps is that the locations of the setting are detailed in a way that is incredibly gameable. Aside from an overview of each nation within the Steadfast, and at least some description of a few of the lands surrounding it, the core book contains hundreds of specific sites that are exemplary for their region.

Each site has a very evocative description, some small mechanics presented in the margins of the book, usually with hyperlinks where relevant, and at least three unusual rumors, strange sites, or bizarre events that could be discovered at each location.

By presenting things in this manner, you have mountains of prompts, ideas, and examples to work with.

The cultures themselves are given enough detail in the core book that you have some idea of how the people would act and interact with the PCs.

You could run a dozen campaigns just out of the core book and never run out of pre-generated material to use as a jumping off point.

Several of the later books, such as the Ninth World Guide Book, Into the Deep, Into the Night, and Into the Beyond, each add twice again as many locations and prompts as the core book does, while costing only around $6 in pdf.

The Ninth World is strange, beautiful, and ominous in turns. It can feel scattered and random at times, but there are common threads, themes, and histories carefully woven in to keep it from feeling like just a grab bag of science fantasy tropes.

While I sometimes find the art overproduced, there's certainly lots of pieces that do the setting justice and enhance what you are reading beautifully. The podcasts, short films, and video games based on it are all lush experiences, as well.


The rules to Numenéra  in its original edition were well presented. A little flipping was required, but not as much as some games I have bought. The manual is beautifully laid out. Outside of the rules sections, where setting content is being presented, the books tend to separate mechanical data and narrative data by putting mechanical notes in the margins. The game is simple enough that most NPCs, artifacts, and monsters can be expressed in just a few words.

Moreover, the PDFs are well hyperlinked. Almost any mention of a rule contains a link to that rule in the manual. Monsters mentioned in a narrative location, contain links to the stat blocks, etc.

I have not had a chance to look at the second editions manuals, but as they were expanded and reorganized, I would imagine that they have tidied up the more confusing spots, such as the rules on experience points.

It is worth noting that the core book includes multiple adventures with very different themes and types of obstacles.


One of the best parts of the design of the game is the way in which the mechanics are used to build tension. As any adventure progresses, the characters' three pools slowly diminish, and do not come back quickly. Each character has a limited number of rests per day that only yield back a randomized amount that has to be spread across multiple pools.

Different kinds of attacks deplete different pools: no matter how exceptional a character is, they never feel invulnerable. A character might may be able to take a lot of physical punishment because of a high Might, but poison affects Speed instead, and Magic often depletes Intellect. Over time, encumbrance, especially heavy armor, drains pools as well, forcing player characters to manage their resources intelligently.

Moreover, difficult tasks require effort to overcome much of the time. Which means player characters have to deplete their own pools in order to move forward. After a while, player characters find themselves needing to carefully balance putting in effort and holding on to their declining points. Every expenditure has to be a calculated risk.

Image from Numenéra boxed set Edition,
©️2016 Monte Cook Games

Character Generation

The core of every character in Numenéra is a one-sentence character concept. These look something like "Nara is a clever Nano who Rides the Lightning." Expressed as a fill in the blank, the statement is [Name] is a [Descriptor] [Type] who [Focus].

The Descriptor is a usually single-word description of the person that covers some innate element of their character or talents. This could include charming, attractive, clever, strong, aggressive, clumsy, or ignorant. This grants a one-time modifier to a character's pools, Edges (discounts on effort from a specific pool), and may grant them training or inabilities (permanent penalties) to certain tasks.

The Type is an equivalent to to character class, and in the original edition of Numenéra  included Glaive, Jack, and Nano. They give a character base stats, a list of armor and weapons they can use without penalty, several skills that the character has training in, and then a list of optional abilities that they may choose several from. Two additional characters Types were added in sourcebooks.

As a character advances, they will be able to choose more abilities from lists by Tier. A first or second Tier character chooses from a list of low level abilities. As they advance, they get to choose from more impressive ones.

Focus is a unique skill set to the character that sets them apart. This is usually an evocative phrase that talks about what they do. Some examples include "rides the lightning", "masters weaponry", "needs no weapon", "speaks with eloquence", "would rather be reading", etc. Focus grants a skill and a unique ability at character generation, and an additional unique ability at each Tier.

Once players have filled in these blanks from available options, there are only a few simple choices to make and the character is complete. If you know the options you like, this can take just a few minutes.

Character Development 

Small amounts of XP can be used to prevent disasters, build lasting connections with NPCs, or enrich characters backstory, by giving them a small and specific piece of knowledge applicable to the moment. These are either immediately useful, permanent, or both, but at 1-3 experience, the benefits from spent experience points are relatively limited. Once PC accumulates four experience, they can purchase much more broadly-relevant abilities.

For four experience, a character can:

  • increase one of their edges by one,
  • buy four points to distribute across their pools,
  • Increase the maximum amount of effort they can spend on one one,
  • Buy a broad (i.e. "social interactions", "survival") skill at trained (-1 difficulty), upgrade a trained skill to specialist (-2 difficulty), or counteract an inability (+1 difficulty), thus permanently improving one kind of roll by one difficulty level. 
  • Do one several special upgrades such as improving the character's recovery die, proficiencies, or ability in armor.

A player may only expend experience to do each of these once per tier. When they have done four of them, their tier increases (to a maximum of 6). This comes with the choice of one or two new abilities from once type, and a single new ability from one's focus.

Leveling up in this manner feels like a gradual process of improvement, with a sudden breakthrough at the end of this arc. Rather than sporadic jumps that levelling in games like Dungeons & Dragons can feel, unless mitigated by things like training rules.


The six tier limit ensures that the highest tier characters don't feel like superheroes compared to the first tier characters. The new abilities gained as a character increases level are often different and cooler powers without giving a larger numerical advantage.. A sixth tier character will never be so skilled that they can't be hurt by a Level 2 monster. And a second tier character is theoretically capable of taking on a level 7 monster and winning. They just need a little more ingenuity than a tier 6 character might.

GM Fiat Encouraged 

On some levels, the GM Intrusion system encourages the game master to use their Fiat more readily. Player Characters don't get experience unless they meet adventure goals, make discoveries, or experience GM intrusions without spending XP to mitigate them. Strange events, random encounters, accidents, and disasters are the way player characters gain the bulk of the XP they need to advance.

This encourages a GM to come up with unusual events, strange happenings, unexpected disasters, and more to keep the adventure moving. The recommendation that one occur at least per hour of play certainly would keep the game from slowing down.

Because it is a complicated topic, Monte Cook games ultimately released a source book specifically on how to use them, including numerous random tables entitled Taking the Narrative by the Tail. I found it was a very worthwhile supplement at $3.


Cover to Ninth World Guidebook
©️2015 Monte Cook Games 
And therein lies the greatest strength I have found for Numenéra: Numenéra has many books covering a staggering array of topics and options. A few of the most meta pieces include the aforementioned to Taking the Narrative by the Tail, as well as the book Love and Sex in the Ninth World, which covers integrating sex into a numeric campaign in a meaningful manner, including a lot of broadly applicable principles. Injecting the Weird is a guidebook on making your games a little stranger.

Weird Discoveries is a set detailed Adventures that can be prepped and run as a one-shot in a matter of a few hours. 

My favorites , however, are the ones that give you views of other parts of the Ninth World. Ninth World Guide Book covers lands far beyond the Steadfast, but where player characters from the Steadfast might wind up. Into the Deep covers sea adventures, including travel overseas, deep sea adventures, and several strange island and coastal locations. Into the Night covers both teleportation, and starship travel, into outer space. Its locations include several exoplanets and ruins in space both near Earth and reachable from it by lost technology. Into the Beyond covers extra dimensional travel into other dimensions and alien worlds.

Cover to Injectng the Weird
©️2015 Monte Cook Games 
Each of these is built using the same winning format as the setting section of the original Numenéra core book

A Note on the Latest Edition 

A couple of years ago Numenéra  received a new edition. I would describe it as "Numenéra 1.5," rather than a second edition. The mechanical rules of the game have not been substantially changed, although the character options for the Jack type have been modified. 

What has been done differently is that the core book is being broken into two smaller books, Numenéra: Discovery and Numenéra: Destiny. Discovery focuses on the standard form of Numenéra adventures: exploring ruins, uncovering mysteries, salvaging cyphers and shins. It includes additional character types, descriptors, and foci that had appeared in the character options books. I gather that it's slightly refined the rules for salvaging as well.

Numenéra: Destiny has a dimension of Dominion-level play. The original core book repeatedly suggests that player characters might want to choose a home community and begin building it up by bringing technology to it, teaching and protecting the people there, but didn't offer much guidance on how to make that happen. Destiny provides rules for adopting, advancing, and sustaining a community and turning it into a bastion of civilization in the wilderness. I gathered also introduces a leader-oriented character type.

I have not looked at Numenéra: Destiny closely. However, I can guess at how some of it is designed. Another game released by Monty Cook games: The Strange uses the same engine but focuses on a world in which human beings can travel to realistic simulations of fictional worlds created by the collective unconscious and shaped in the dark matter around earth. In The Strange, characters can find seeds to allow them to build their own worlds to their imagination. The size, natural laws, NPC population, the foci available to characters from the area, and it's general security from invasion are all things player characters can increase by investing their experience points and time into the world they have created. I would imagine a similar system has been derived from it for Destiny.

Growth Points

Unbounded Agency

Image from Numenéra,
©️2013 Monte Cook Games
Numenéra's system of GM intrusions may encourage the GM to keep the game rolling with strange twists and turns, but it also has a negative effect on immersion -- or at least it did for my players 

Firstly, announcing the intrusion tends to pull players out of immersion. They find themselves suddenly being reminded that they are playing a game. And while that works for tables that lean more towards constructed stories, I find almost every traditional adventure game player find this formality to be like nails on a chalkboard.

Certainly my wife started begging me not to draw attention to the intrusions.

Secondly, the ability to use XP to cancel or mitigate intrusions, without having a meaningful in-narrative explanation gives players way more power over the narrative than their characters themselves would have. Certainly, this creates a more "cinematic" fiction than the average TTRPG, but it does so at the cost of reducing the sense of risk, danger, and reality.

It is worth noting that the way XP is handled is designed with a relatively low trust for GMs in mind. The examples even include players acting in a way that is rude and antagonistic towards the GM. The examples even include a mildly antagonistic tone and language when describing how to use this mechanic.

Many of my players point blank refuse to use mechanics like this. My wife calls it "cheating" to give PCs a power that has nothing to do with the narrative. Even Inspiration in D&D5e can kill the buzz for a lot of my players, and gets deliberately ignored.

The problem is that there are places in Numenéra where buying an intrusion or cancelling one is the only way for players to get anywhere... especially in combat.

Limited Combat System 

Combat in the Cypher System can be a bit of a proud nail. It is smooth and fast -- except when it isn't.

Players make an attack roll against an enemy's Level that is based on Speed or Might (meaning they can spend effort from that pool if they want to). Damage is flat with1 damage for a light weapon, 2 for a medium one, and 3 for a two-handed or heavy weapon. Armor is subtracted from damage done qith light, medium, and heavy armor being worth 1,2, or 3 respectively. Monsters can have 0 armor, or armor equal to their Level, or possibly double their Level.. When PCs are attacked they roll a check against the attacker's level related to speed. Training in weapons or dodging can make these rolls easier. A d20 roll of 19 does double damage. A roll of 20 causes a favorable intrusion. A roll of 1 causes an unfavorable intrusion.

"Blood Barm", a Level 3 creature was able to
grind my game to halt with relatively light armor
Image from Numenéra,
©️2013 Monte Cook Games
The problem is that it is possible to meet total stalemate mechanically. Against a  creature with 2-4 points of armor, a party with light weapons can find themselves up against even a weak opponent that they cannot hurt. This is especially true at range where Glaives often cannot use their special abilities to boost damage.

In such circumstances, the game can grind to a halt. I had an encounter ion one of my first games where players were up against fairly weak Level 3 monsters with 2 armor attacking them from across a river. The monsters -and the party, could only hurt each other on a natural 19 or 20, or if an intrusion was used. The monsters were described as non-sentient and unable to choose to run. Once the PCs ran out of free-floating XP, the game just crawled.

Likewise, I had a situation where two PCs came up against a Level 3 robot that simply could not hit them. One PC was too well armored, while the other had enough Speed edge and training in Speed defense that she could reduce the level of the robot's attack every round. However, the armor on the robot turned the battle into a grim wait for a natural 20 or a natural 1 to show up.

Situations like this happen just often enough that they feel like a design flaw rather than an edge case. The only solution in this case is to start slinging XP around to make enough Intrusions happen that it re-writes the battle.

Injury Recovery is Insanely Fast

Characters have four injury levels: Hale, Injured, Disabled, and Dead. Hale is the default level. They drop down to the other levels when pools empty to zero. The wounds go away when the character has at least one point back in the pool.

Recovery occurs by expending one of your daily uses of your recovery die. The first time you use it requires a round to catch your breath. The second time, a ten minutes to sort yourself out. The third an hour to nurse injuries, etc. The fourth requires a full night's sleep. Each time, a character gains a base of 1d6 to put back into their pools as they see fit. Some characters can add more rolls per day, or add bonuses to the recovery die.

Practically what this means is that if a character has two pools at 0, and rolls a 2 on their recovery die, they can go from Disabled to Hale simply by putting 1 point in two different pools. Which has happened in my games. Literally, a character with bleeding wounds who is too hurt to do anything other than crawl can take a deep breath and six seconds late be on their feet with no penalty.

While this is limited to a few times a day, and a character with run-down pools will eventually suffer for it, it can still be a frustratingly comic-bookish.

Image from Nith World Guidebook,
©️2015 Monte Cook Games

Spontaneous Advancement 

First, a confession: I really like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' training rules. I like the fact that the PCs have to spend a big chunk of their ill-gotten gains on things like networking, research, and religious service in order to gain a level. it empties those bags of holding and forces them to keep going back into the dungeon for more gold, rather than retiring as well-off gentleman farmers at level 3. Training makes XP for GP part of a loop that keeps PCs hungry.

More importantly it mitigates the "Ding!" syndrome. Ding! is the weird disconnect that comes when players just seem to get geometrically more powerful suddenly the moment they take night''s sleep at an inn. When PCs level like they typically do in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, or even some lighter OSR games like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG or Low Fantasy Gaming, (both of which I love) it can feel jarring. Especially when you like a little realism in your game.

In theory, Numenéra is insulated against the Ding!. Characters need to slowly spend large chunks of XP on building up a level piecemeal. First they get a little more energy, then they get a little smarter, faster, and stronger. They they need to increase their ability to push themselves. And somewhere along the line they need to pick up a new skill or refine an old one. Each of these changes happens instantly, but they are subtle, and have to be bought over time.

Once they are all made, the character goes up a Tier and may choose one Type power and gains one Focus power, That is the closest we get to a ding! moment. And it doesn't feel over-the-top-or excessive compared to, say, a Cleric level in Dungeons & Dragons...

In theory.

In truth, XP gain in Numenéra is based on GM Intrusions, which are partially randomized, and sometimes necessary to keep the game moving. It is possible for XP to suddenly start rolling in with few controls on its flow. 

I have seen PCs spend XP to solve problems and wind up with none for advancement for several sessions. And I have seen lucky PCs rack up so much XP that they can grab a full Tier of upgrades in a single session.

Treasure Is Meaningless 

I suspect that this is one of the things that Numenéra: Destiny fixes, but as the game stands in the original edition, there is no actual reason why a PC would want to risk their neck going into ruins for mere shins and trinkets.

Firstly, shins as is don't make any real sense at all. As a guy who has read a few economic textbooks in my day, the idea that somehow the whole of a continent can agree that shiny bits of random rubbish are mostly currency - in spite of the fact that they are neither scarce nor particularly consistent is a fast approaching absurd. As is the idea of people lugging around hundreds of pieces of junk and accepting that any given merchant will accept only around 80% of them as currency based on their personal read on the marketplace. This fails to offer any of the advantages of currency or a pricing system.

But, I will put that one aside. Currency makes no sense in Dungeons & Dragons, either, after all. Economic absurdities we can give a pass.

Worse is the fact that shins are both abundant and have no power to motivate the PCs. There are no training requirements in Numenéra. There's no hefty upkeep. No mechanics for finding oneself in debt in character generation. No domain game tat requires PC investment. Gear is not highly differentiated or expensive. A character's starting gear is going to be pretty close to what they need. By three adventures in, the PC needs to pay their bar tab, inn room, replace rations, and buy ammo. All of which costs fewer shins in a week than a PC could gain by stripping the ancient remains of a car.

When PCs can literally roll to find money and valuable objects in the nearest trash pile, there is no way for treasure to motivate PCs.

Image from Technology Compendium: Sir Arthour's Guide to the Numeners,
©️2014 Monte Cook Games

This means that PCs have to be driven by curiosity (XP is gained for discovering wonderous things,) but this is lemming behavior in a setting as deadly as the Ninth World. Or by a desire to become the best in their field (chasing the mighty XP through exploring). Or the GM will have to concoct a plot to push the PCs forward, leaving emergent play by the wayside.

Getting the characters started in Numenéra can be something of a chore because the setting is so strange and different. A big sack of shiny gold is something players can understand no matter the setting.

Making it so that those shins and XP can be used to build a home base could fix this problem easily. it is why I ported a mix of rules from The Strange and Mutant: Year Zero in my campaigns. And why I suspect that Numenéra: Destiny is probably a game changer even as it serves as a rulebook.


Oorgolian Soldier
Image from Numenéra,
©️2013 Monte Cook Games
Numenéra might have slipped past your radar if you hadn't been looking for it. It is a strange, offbeat, indie title made by an impressive cast of industry veterans with a lot of good ideas and one of the best settings it has been my pleasure to read. Even if you are just hunting for prompts or inspiration, some of the setting books are worth your time.

That said, it is a flawed system that doesn't offer PCs enough in-game motivation while expecting a constant level of metagaming that can hurt immersion.... unless you choose to ignore certain rules and mechanics that the game was designed to use.

Numenéra embraces an idea of what a TTRPG should be that is centered more on plots and aiming to create a specific "story" rather than just letting emergent play happen. That GMs are thought of as entertainers and may need checks and balances in their power through mechanical means to ensure players get what they are looking for.

This philosophy is perhaps the reason why Monte Cook Games has been at the vanguard of a lot of the movements and products that represent a low-trust approach to running games such as The Consent in Gaming Checklist (which was formatted as a Numenéra product and sent out in their newsletter.) And were involved in a lot of the social contract in cons movement of 2016 onward.

It's an approach I don't care for in my games and seems endemic to Story Game culture.  And one of the other reasons why I ultimately stopped buying Numenéra. I don't want to buy from someone who won't trust me to be a decent human being, or whose game attracts many players who don't. 

I may seem pretty harsh here. Especially as it is a game that I have spent many hours playing and reading.  For all of its flaws, I love Numenéra for the bizarre setting with its surreal wonders. I love its Chaotic and random magic, and I love its willingness to take risks in its design.  Like another deeply flawed game, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG,  I doubt I would ever turn down a chance to play Numenéra. The flaws are strongly outweighed by the fun of the game when it is running right.

And the setting books are a study in how to build a captivating world.

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