Numenera : The Review

OK, it is time for the review.  Numenera is a game that has received a lot of press over its time due to its massive Kickstarter and then its delivery and over the past year the rapid acceptance of the game into the mainstream of RPG’s.  In fact, Numenera to me is up there with the big games in my eyes, like D&D, Pathfinder, 13th Age and FATE (yes I just said FATE).  Numenera and I though have not had a smooth run together and it has taken me a long time to read this book, having bought it in PDF format and then getting an Educators copy for my school to read.  Reading it has been a love hate relationship for around 10 months now and on Monday night I finally finished the main book.

I have been living under a rock, what is Numenera?

Numenera is the game of Earth 1 Billion years from now.  Many civilisations have risen and fallen in this time, not all of them human and most of them high technology based.  But the inhabitants of the new world, the Ninth World as it is known have lost most of the manuals on how to use this stuff.  Somewhere there is a spare room full of manuals on some sweet technology and as a result the inhabitants of essentially a post apocalyptic world see all these strange and fantastical devices that surround them as a form of magic.  The players of the game play one of three different types of characters in this setting:

  • The glaive is a character who specialises in muscle and being a warrior
  • The nano is a magician of sorts who understands the numenera (these strange devices) better than most
  • The jack is kind of a combination of the two being able to handle almost any situation

OK, I kind of understand numenera, what is the system like?

Numenera uses the cypher system.  It is a system that came into being for this game and has since been used in one other game to date (The Strange) and is cited for at least one more that I know of.  It has several features that make the system very interesting to a GM and very easy to use for a player.  OK, first thing is that on the whole the GM never rolls a die.  There is one exception to that rule that I know of but in essence for the GM this system is going to feel like a dice-less system.  Now this is a good and bad thing at times.  I have run dice-less systems and I know at times I have an urge just to pick up a die – any die – and roll it to assist making a decision.  Numenera works off the presumption that if only the player rolls dice to determine outcomes then they will feel that they are in the drivers seat and their fate is in their hands alone.

pedagogy and RPGs
The educators copy of Numenera I received from Monte Cook Games

It is not the first time that I have seen this as Dungeon World works on the same basis (and I am assuming all of the World style games) and it works well there.  This frees the GM up to direct the action and story in interesting ways rather than being bogged down into statistics and the like.  That is one of the real attractions for this game too.  Say I, as the GM, want the players to face an amorphous cloud that solidifies and whips tendrils of hot gasses at players then I really need to organise only a few things.  Its level as a rating of 1 to 10 (one being easy, 10 being almost impossible), its health (which can be factored from the level) and its damage (which is normally the same as its level).  See, it would have taken me less time to make the creature than it has to write this paragraph, and that is a very nice thing for the GM.

From a base mechanic perspective, whenever a player attempts to do something (climb a cliff, evade an attack, operate a device) the GM assigns the task a difficulty number from 1 to 10.  The target number for that task will be the difficulty multiplied by 3, so a 5 would be 15.  This needs to be rolled on a d20 or higher.  Now those of you that are even marginally mathematically gifted will see the target numbers 7 to 10 are impossible.  To that end there is a mechanical negotiation that goes on at any task where the player gets to apply the effects of skills, assets and effort to reduce the target number.  For example, say I am a nano who is faced with an oncoming hoard of the amorphous clouds I mentioned above but I am at the console of a massive device I have clambered into.  I have found out that with this device I believe (from my knowledge of the numenera) that I can create a massive blast of air and scatter the gasses.  But it is a difficulty 10 task as the console is huge and complicated.  The labels are written in an unknown script and the device was made for aliens with a different physiology to me, not to mention that there may be some short circuits too.

To lower the target number I first look to my skills.  I note that I am specialised in the numenera and when I am specialised in a related skill then I get to lower the difficulty number by two, if I were simply trained in the skill it would be one.  So because of this skill I now have the difficulty factor of 8.  Next are assets and these are items that would help me achieve the task.  Say for example I had the manual for the device then I would be able to lower it by one to a difficulty of 7.  I have almost made this possible.  Last is effort and this is a cool concept in Numenera.  You have three pools which are essentially your statistics in Numenera.  They are Intellect, Might and Speed.  These pools have a maximum number but if you spend three points then you apply one level of effort (which means your pool depletes by three) and if you can garner more effort any further levels are two points after the first point of effort.  Each point of effort reduces the difficulty number by one.  Let us assume I can get two effort there is one other thing that comes into play and that is Edge.  Each pool has an edge rating and you reduce that from the cost of the total to spend because you have the edge.  So I want to apply two levels of effort to reduce the task to a difficulty of 5 and this would normally cost 5 from my intellect pool (this is an intellect task, 3 for the first point of effort, 2 for the second) but I have an edge rating of 2 in intellect so I only spend three points and the difficulty is now 5 which means I need to roll 15 to blast the gasses away from the device.  I roll a 17 and watch as the gasses get obliterated.

Through all of this the GM can spice things up by using a GM Intrusion.  These are used to make the story interesting.  Let us further the example and the GM says that she wants to use an intrusion at the point the gasses get obliterated.  She tells me that the device rises like a spinning top into the air and I get sucked to the centre of the control room, imprisoned in a cylinder of force.  After 6 seconds of mind numbing nausea their is a loud pop and I will be transported to an unknown location.  The GM offers me two experience (XP) to take the intrusion.  If I accept then I keep one XP and hand the other on to a player of my choice that I think deserves it.  However, if I do not like the intrusion I can give the GM 1 XP not to have the intrusion take effect.

I know that is a lot of material to take in but honestly, it is almost the entire system in a nut shell mechanically speaking.  Their are a few other bits and bos but if you can understand what I just explained then you could play Numenera.  I had put Numenera down for a month or so and then Monte Cook released a video of how to play it that inspired me to finish it.  It looks like great fun, even in this staged in-person game video that I have linked to below.

I hope that they don’t mind using their own video.  I enjoyed it and I hope you all do too.

OK, so I understand that but amorphous gas?  Sounds weird.

Look, Numenera is a game designed to be weird and unusual.  It is a world filled with technology that has not even been thought of yet.  The GM will need to be on their game to make everything sound alien and weird and be highly descriptive without using metaphor or simile.  It is not like a shotgun, it is two hollow metallic rods attached that are equal length with a lever set into a wooden slab.  See?

Actually, this is one of the first things that I really thought I would have trouble with.  I am a GM and I had the belief when I first came to this that the devices the players would pick up may be used by them however they use it but I at least should understand what it originally was.  I do not know why I thought that but it was my original gut reaction and one of the reasons I did not pursue reading the game any further in PDF form.  I am totally OK with this concept now and am actually looking forward to this concept.  It offers a great mechanic that supports the weird that is the setting for Numenera.  In fact, I am sure that it will make me a better GM.

The game has a kind of fantasy basis in a highly sci-fi world with an ounce of weird just as a twist.  This means that the game is going to be very strange at times.  Very strange, but that is exactly what this system aims to do.  Also the idea is not your standard idea of kill, loot, next room.  In fact, the heart of this game is exploration.  Going out and exploring the land that is full of the numenera and finding out what it can be used for and putting it to work.  I think this would be a really nice solo style played game and I keep thinking of Indianna Jones while I consider the game.  It is geared toward a normal sized group though and there is a massive scope for this to work really well.

Why did you take so long to read it?  What do you not like about it?

I said it was a love hate relationship with this book and for me it was the setting that I really could not grasp.  The system I really like and from the GM perspective it is brilliant.  I will talk about that next.  However, a bulk part of the book attempts to build a setting for the game and it was so long, and for me, dry information.  It was pages and pages and pages of names and places and objects that I had no buy in for.  Seriously, I took to reading this book in bed because I knew that with half a page of reading then I would fall asleep.  It is not saying that this may be hugely helpful to others but to me I was bored.  The book slowly made its way to the bottom of my pile of things to read and stayed there for a long time.

It is not that the material there is bad it is the sheer volume of it.  Therefore you get very short snippets of information trying to throw a hook at yo to investigate or for the GM to flesh out.  There was nothing there that caused me any lasting buy in and slowly I just lost interest overall.  Had it not been for the video above I would never have picked the book up again possibly and that would have been a disaster!  My world will be a lot different to those in the pages but that is OK.  World building is one of the things that I love doing.

So, GM’s will love Numenera?

Oh, so much.  I am telling you now that Numenera removes a lot, if not all of the drudgery of preparation.  Really, the example above of creating a creature is how simple it is.  So what do you need to do as a GM?  You have to think of interesting or cool things for the players to investigate!  Come up with some of the cool and the strange and let your mind go wild.  Have a think about how your players work their characters and come up with some ideas for some good intrusions that will make the story interesting!  I am a big proponent of designing adventures by mind maps or brain storms and this game suits that style 100%.

Numenera book open
The last few pages of Numenera contain four adventures to use!

What I am trying to say is that this game truly does allow you to play around with the fun stuff as the GM.  It promotes putting up some interesting problems for the players to explore and to come up with ideas on how to make that idea interesting and exciting for all at the table.

Any last words for Numenera?

I loved the GM section and the rule system that is attached to this game.  The setting is something that I can use and ignore so though I found it hard to get through I realised that this is a game that I want to play in my own world.  Sure, there is stuff that I read that I will likely incorporate into it but the setting section will not get too many page turns from me again.

The system is fluid and narrative which is great for the style of game that I want to play.  I want to get to the story and allow the characters be who they want to be.  I feel that there could be a lot more offered up in character creation and I did not really touch on this but I am reading a character options book at the moment that expands the style of character you can use.  The base book only has three “classes” but there are a large number of character combinations that can make every character very different.

The narrative space that has been opened up for this game is large and weird which means, I am sure, that there are a lot of games going on out in the big bad world that are using the same book but are vastly different and that is a great thing.  I do strongly encourage all of you to try and have a game of this at one stage or another and find out what it is like.  If you are someone who sees themselves as a serious GM, give this a try because I think you will find the system is hugely agreeable.  Keep rolling!


  1. “Numenera works off the presumption that if only the player rolls dice to determine outcomes then they will feel that they are in the driver’s seat and their fate is in their hands alone.”

    And yet:

    “the GM assigns the task a difficulty number from 1 to 10. The target number for that task will be the difficulty multiplied by 3, so a 5 would be 15. This needs to be rolled on a d20 or higher.”

    If the players’ fates were truly in their hands alone, then THEY would be setting the target numbers, like in GURPS and HackMaster (possibly my favorite feature of those two games). As a player I love having that level of control. As a GM I love not having to come up with TNs/DCs/whatever every single time a player wants to do something.

    Instead I just have to keep an eye out for anything that might make the task harder or easier, and apply an appropriate penalty or bonus. But the vast majority of the time all I have to do is interpret the rolls, while the players do all the hard work. So they get to feel like they’re in charge, simultaneously reducing my workload, thus increasing the fun for everyone and making it a win-win that I wish more game designers would embrace.


    1. GURPS always put me off due to the complexity in making a character. I am not sure I can remember actually playing a game. I think we would get so far in making a character and then just choose a system that was dedicated to the setting we were going to play. Mind you, this experience was in 1991 or 1992. I have no idea what the current system is like.


    2. – “If the players’ fates were truly in their hands alone, then THEY would be setting the target numbers”

      Well, that has nothing to do with what the reviewer is explaining. If the players are rolling the dice, then they are solely responsible for the outcome of those rolls; they can’t blame the GM for a botched roll, can’t be surprised by sudden modifiers or be upset if the GM rolls something in secret, etc. The fact that the GM also tells the player the difficulty of the tasks allows the player to decide whether the current task is an endeavor they want to/ are able to take on.

      That’s the concept of what ‘having their fate in their own hands’ refers to here.

      What you describe may be true for your group – you want to somehow determine the difficulty of your own rolls – but that’s a different topic.


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