"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke, "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination"

TOWARDS THE END OF THE 1960s, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were sharing a New York City cab.  Alongside Robert Heinlein, both were considered part of the Holy Trinity of science fiction writers, and often asked which of them was the best.  In the back of that taxi, the pair found an elegant solution, and the so-called "Treaty of Park Avenue" was drawn up between them.  Clarke would ever after insist that Asimov was the best, while Asimov would always insist his superior was Clarke.

Despite this, the two had their differences.  Asimov, for example, drew a firm line between "science fiction" and "fantasy."  The first, he insisted, was grounded in science and dealt with the possible.  The latter, centred purely in the imagination, dealt with the impossible.  But Clarke, perhaps in part as a play on Asimov's famous "Three Laws of Robotics" issued Three Laws all his own.  The first of these, I like to think, was a tongue in cheek jab at his friend and rival;  "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."  He finished with the famous and oft-quoted assertion that "sufficiently advanced technology" was indistinguishable from "magic."

No other role-playing game has ever embraced Clarke's point-of-view as deeply as Monte Cook's Numenera.

A bit like Clarke, by 2001 Cook found himself in a Holy Trinity of RPG designers.  Alongside Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams he was tapped to design the d20 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, writing the Dungeon Master's Guide.  If you weren't familiar with his name from Champions or Rolemaster, or from his days at TSR writing books for the Planescape line, you couldn't be a gamer and escape it in the wake of the d20 system's ubiquity.  Despite my own antipathy for the system, I liked Cook's work in it.  His translation of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu might have been (to me) completely unnecessary, but he pulled it off brilliantly.  Likewise his take on White Wolf's "World of Darkness" was inspired.  By the end of the decade he was bit of an RPG "rock star," and it was no surprise that when he turned to Kickstarter to generate capital for a new project called Numenera, he raised more than 25 times his goal of $20,000.  Cook has that sort of name recognition and fan base, and Numenera is the perfect example of why he deserves it.

Depending on whether you lean towards Asimov or Clarke, Numenera is either a fantasy or a science fiction RPG.  Set a billion years from now, Numenera is about the peoples of the Ninth World.  At least eight previous worlds have risen and fallen back into obivion, each over a cycle of hundreds of millions of years.  Some of them left behind orbital satellites to bathe the world in a massive datasphere.  Some of them terraformed, and then re-terraformed, the planet.  Some of them were the centres of vast, interstellar empires.  Some of them mastered the fundamental laws of physics and played with them like toys.  Some of them created the nanotechnology that now invisibly swarms across the planet. Some of them explored other dimensions.  Some bioengineered new forms of life.  And several--if not most of them--were not even remotely human.

Now, inexplicably, humans have returned to the Ninth World, though no one can say from where.  Spread thinly across part of the planet in a quasi-medieval patchwork of kingdoms known as the Steadfast--and some in a wilder region known as the "Beyond"--the humans of the Ninth World dig through the ruins of the ancients collecting "numenera," a catch-all term for any and all of the wonders of the past.  They are guided by the Order of Truth, a "church" of sorts led by the Amber Popes and dedicated to improving the human condition by learning the secrets of the old worlds.

If you close one eye and look at Numenera from the right angle, this is all pretty generic fare.  Medieval kingdoms built on the bones of ancient, wondrous empires, bold adventurers combing dangerous, monster-filled ruins for treasures...we've seen this a thousand times before.  Even the three core character classes--the Glaive, the Nano, and the Jack--look pretty much the same as the Warrior-Mage-Rogue archetypes from other games.  Numenera looks the same as any fantasy RPG.  But shift a few steps an take a look again.  Suddenly Numenera starts to look like a post-apocalyptic future.  Move a bit further and it looks like weird horror.  From another angle, an almost Roddenberrian game of hope, wonder, and exploration.  It can be used any of these ways.  It is at its best when used in all these ways.

Which brings us back to Clarke's laws.  That desert hermit, mumbling to himself?  With hand gestures and incantations he can bring a rain of fire out of the sky.  Is he activating the clouds of nanotech machines swarming through the air?  Is it some form of pyrokinesis caused by a mutation in his brain?  Does he channel extradimensional energies?  In the end it is simpler just to call it what it is; "numenera," the same as the Doctor's TARDIS, the Monoliths from 2001, or the "killing words" of Dune.  This is tech so far beyond us it looks like magic.

So what is the game about, then?  How does it work?

Numenera is a game of discovery, where experience points are handed out for uncovering wonders rather than killing enemies.  It operates around a simple d20 roll and a difficulty scale running from 1 (ridiculously easy) to 10 (practically impossible).  When a character wants to attempt an action, the GM assigns a difficulty, and the player needs to roll equal to or above that difficulty x 3.  For example, a chasm might require a Difficulty 4 Might roll to jump across it.  Multiplying by three gives us 12, and the player needs to roll that number or higher.

What then about Difficulties of 7, 8, 9, and 10?  You can't beat those on a 20-sided die.

Characters have three core attributes; Might, Intellect, and Speed.  They also posses special abilities and skills.  Skills can lower a Difficulty one or two steps, reducing a Difficulty 5 task to 4 or 3.  Certain abilities and pieces of equipment can lower a Difficulty as well.  Or, the player can chose to use "Effort," spending points from his attribute pool to lower the Difficulty.  This can be risky, because your attribute pools serve as your "hit points" as well.  The amount of Effort you can spend, and how much you must spend, is ruled in part by your Tier (level).  A lower Tier character needs to spend more Effort to lower a Difficulty by a single step; a higher Tier character can spend less Effort to lower a Difficulty a step, and can lower Difficulties by multiple steps.  It is a simple, flexible, and very elegant mechanic.

Combat, incidentally, works the same way.  Your opponent has a level from 1 to 10, which determines the basic rolls you need to strike and defend against it (again, level x 3 modified by unique NPC features).  In Numenera, the GM never touches the dice.  All rolls are made by players.  Damage is fixed by weapon type (Light, Medium, or Heavy) and reduced by armour.  A roll of 17 adds +1 to damage, 18 adds +2, 19 adds +3, and 20 adds +4.  19s and 20s can trigger special effects as well.  Naturally, a character's abilities affect combat and damage as well.

One of the finest features of the game is that it is "player-facing."  The GM, as mentioned, never rolls dice.  Instead, Numenera uses a mechanic known as "intrusion."  The GM is allowed to make things "happen" that normally would be handled by a roll.  Do the palace guards hear the sounds of the player characters breaking in?  Does the ancient bridge collapse under the character's weight?  Does the device the character is carrying suddenly malfunction?  The GM can invoke any of these effects--any effect she needs to further the plot or make things more interesting--but for a price.  The character affected by the intrusion is given two experience points immediately...one to keep for himself, and one to award another party member for any reason.  Or, he can refuse the intrusion, and pay an experience point back to the GM.  Between this mechanic, and the ease with which NPCs and creatures can be extrapolated using the simple 1 to 10 scale, Numenera eliminates the heavy lifting other games saddle the GM with and lets her concentrate on moving the story along.

Character creation is another excellent feature of the game.  It basically works out to a simple sentence in which the player picks the noun, the adjective, and the verb; "I am a (adjective) (noun) that (verb)."

The noun is the easiest; it's the three "classes" I mentioned above.  There are the warrior Glaives, the mage-like Nanos, and the roguish Jacks.  Each gets special abilities to chose from each new Tier, as well as a base pool of points for Might, Intellect, and Speed.  Each archetype comes with options to personalise the character choice.  

The adjectives are things like "Charming," "Graceful," or "Strong-Willed" that bestow a package of bonuses, skills, flaws, equipment, and connections to the setting.

Finally, the verbs are things like "Bears a Halo of Fire," "Controls Beasts," "Explores Dark Places," or "Masters Weaponry."  These are professions, super-powers, or character motivations that grant a suite of additional abilities that increase each Tier, as well as a wealth of character shaping details and extras.  

Thus, a Numenera character might be "a Clever Jack that Works the Back Alleys," "a Rugged Glaive Who Howls at the Moon," or "an Intelligent Nano Who Commands Mental Powers."  These three lenses come together to create detailed and interesting characters.

What Cook gives us then is a streamlined and very modern "D&D" with an Arthur C. Clarke twist.  Much of what characters do--explore ruins, discover treasures, fight hideous creatures, navigate local politics--happens in other RPGs, but Numenera's focus never leaves the theme of wonder, of weirdness, of discovery.  Whether it is science fiction or fantasy depends on how the group approaches it, and it's unique setting allows the GM and players to shape the world to their tastes.  Already with a strong line up of supporting products, Numenera is a far future game with a bright future ahead of it.

Go see the Numenera page here.









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