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Reading the Numenera (Core Rulebook) by Monte Cook

I know I’m pretty late to the party, but I’m trying to take notes as I read different RPG books, in part to sort of collect my thoughts about them. Numenera‘s already got a new (backwards-compatible) edition, so I’m really behind the curve, but I’m behind the curve on everything these days, and if I let that stop me, I’d never post anything here. So, here are my thoughts on the Numenera core rulebook, loaned to me long ago by my amazingly patient friend Justin Howe

This is a massive book, and a very pretty one. Whatever you think the game it contains, the layout is outstanding, the art is mostly top-notch, and the organization is logical and clear. I think the sidebar references—explaining key concepts, providing page references, and so on—is especially good. Textbook publishers have been structuring information in this way for a long time, and it’s kind of amazing it took so long to finally get done in a mainstream RPG rulebook. (At least, this the earliest example I’ve seen.)

As for the content itself, I could go on for some time about what I think are its strengths and weaknesses. The short version, though, is that I like the ruleset well enough—though it feels a bit neo-traditional, it’s fine for a certain kind of adventure game, an interesting variant on the old ways of playing those games—and I dig the ambition of the setting, which I think could be really compelling for a group interested in an exploratory campaign. While some out there complain that the GM doesn’t roll dice, I think that’s a feature: a certain amount of game-running-tasks fall upon the players, which means the GM free to focus on stuff like how the adventure’s flowing, whether antagonists are a good power-level for the session, what kinds of complications can be introduced, and so on. 

That last mechanic, especially, feels useful to me: the GM can intrude into the action to ask whether players are willing to accept the addition of a complication into the game, in exchange for bonus XP. The fact that players get to make the call is interesting, and reminds me of Blades in the Dark and other recent story games where players get the call about whether a complication is introduced, while also being given an incentive to go along with it.

It’s a reasonable system, and with the exception of the D&D 3.0-styled feats section—which was long and which I have to confess made my eyes glaze over—it’s pretty simple and straightforward. If I were able to boil those feats down into something simpler, I could see myself running the game for a while, at least long enough to figure out whether I would ever feel it was worth the added learning curve necessary to get people used to D&D-styled RPGs used to the system. (That is, after all, often an uphill battle.)

At the same time, I also found myself longing for two things:

  1. I wished that things had been pushed further into the ostensible weirdness of the setting, instead of replicating so much of the assumptions of D&D. 
  2. I wished for less setting detail, and more of a toolkit approach to the setting—more support for making my own Ninth World, instead of being handed such a heavily detailed one. 

I’ll address those points specifically below.

First, I found myself wishing that Numenera had departed more from “the assumptions of D&D” and embraced the weirdness of the setting. By this, I mean everything from the default character classes being so familiar (Glaive, Nano, and Jack feel a lot like the Fighter, Magic-User, and Rogue), the focus on combat skills and abilities, and the assumption that combat is the central adventure activity. (Yes, yes, Cook says “discovery” is, but if you look at how the rules provide scaffolding for character activities, and if you examine the sample adventures—as well as the Free RPG Day adventures I’ve managed to read—it ends up looking and feeling a lot like the mix of combat, puzzles, and skill check stuff one gets from 3E D&D. Hell, in one of the sample adventures, Cook even explicitly advises that a mad scientist NPC be played like a crazed evil mage from a traditional fantasy setting. I thought we were playing Numenera in part to get away from the tired old FRPG tropes?

And second, as for my mention of longing for a Ninth World toolkit: well, that’s probably something that was never going to happen. The audience for potential players with that kind of OSR sensibility was never that big, was it?

Still, that’s the big fat Numenera corebook I long for: one that assumes the Ninth World setting is mainly to be homebrewed by the GM, and so provides a more sketchy overview of it, maybe discussing a few landmarks and general regions, along with advice for making those regional differences pop. That would be far more useful to me than the (as I think of it) “Lonely Planet” gazetteer approach: after fifty pages, I stop caring much about someone else’s lovingly crafted setting details and wishing I could just extract the methodlogy they used for creating it, and boil that down into a conceptual and practical toolkit (in the vein of David McGrogan’s Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land or Kevin Crawford’s approach to Stars Without Number) for building the setting and making it truly bizarre and fresh every time. I mean, the extensive setting detail is okay, but… well, I felt like I’d been given a Numenera fish, and I wanted to say, “But I’d rather buy a fishing rod and a box of tackle  and some advanced fishing lessons!”

I can see clear reasons for this approach, of course: Cook was, after all, targeting a customer base who doesn’t uniformyl share my preferences—and in fact, who seem to appreciate games with tons of feats and tons of setting detail. The design he chose to pursue is probably a good choice, for one’s flagship game when setting up a new company with a likely audience like that, right? People who want setting material prebuilt for them will also probably have a good hunger for nice, big, beautifully illustrated and intensely detailed hardback supplements, after all.

But… well, I can still long for that other toolkit-powered, OSR-sensibility-informed Numenera book, right? Especially since I found some fo the strongest parts of the book were in Cook’s general advice for how to make the Ninth World feel like the Ninth World, and how to run the game in an engaging way.

Actually, I felt the same way about the bestiary: it was fine, and I liked the notes on the creatures’ psychologies and play strategies for the GM (as well as how easily monsters could be adjusted), but the list of creatures provided in the corebook was a bit short (especially given the vast geographical range of the region mapped out for us), and I think GMs with a more homebrew-driven approach would have been more inspired and better served if Cook had provided something like James Raggi’s Random Esoteric Creature Generator instead of a modern-D&D styled. Some tips on paradigms of creatures that could exist, on new orders of life, on evolutionary quirks that seem to exist in a nanotech infused world, all seem like they could help equip GMs to homebrew some wild, weird monsters. (But then, the Ninth World Bestiary was already in the works, and, again, the average GM has long been happier buying a bestiary than homebrewing monsters for his or her games, somehow. I don’t get it, but it’s true.)

I felt the same way about the chapter on human organizations and the technologies of the world: instead of tables of specific objects, I wanted tables of possible objects.

Not just that, though: I also was surprised to find no underpinning explanation provided for each of the past worlds’ fundamental technological paradigms. Not that I wanted a detailed history of each age, but something inspiring and big picture—something that could fuel a GM’s wildest creative spurts—would have been nice, because as written, the game’s eponymous “numenera”—its cyphers, artifacts, and oddities, which is to say, its gadgety stand-ins for magic items—all just feel more like undifferentiated technomagic, rather than the relics of a fistful of radically different eras and civilizations. (This brought to mind how even the gleefully schlocky Gamma World 7E (the one with the CCG element, fatefully based on D&D 4E) provided three explicit paradigms from the gonzo technologies that show up in the game, and how instructive they proved for people who were interested in homebrewing new technology cards—or even new technology paradigms—for their games.) 

You might think I’m down on the system, but reread the first few paragraphs of this post again. I actually think it’s alright. If I’m talking about the aspects of the game I found disappointing, that’s because I find them interesting for the reason that I learned about my own tastes, preferences, and biases. It took me approximately two years to read through this (borrowed) rulebook, picking it up and putting it down, and a month to really get through it, once I put my mind to just powering through, because I committed to reading it cover to cover to see what I thought about it. 

I think I’d want to run a few sessions of something using the Cypher ruleset before settling on how I feel about it for doing things a little further away from D&D, but my one experience playing in a Numenera game a few years ago was fine. I wasn’t astonished by the system, but neither did it seem to particularly get in the way of play, either—at least not in the hands of a good GM who was used to it. It’s clearly done well for Cook’s company, too, so a lot of people seem to like it, even if it does fall a bit close to the tree—or, perhaps, because it does. 

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