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Numenera: Role Playing in the Ninth World

Numenera (cover)A billion years have passed, and civilisations have risen and fallen leaving evidence of their presence across the world. Wonders that no one can understand; obelisks that float in the sky, creatures that appear from shadows or walk through walls, machines that control the weather, or have uses yet to be discovered.

Humans (mostly) are once again in the ascendance and trying to make sense of these miraculous machines around them. More than that, there are those who have studied these devices and machines and gotten rich from their knowledge. Everyone uses them to some degree; whether to heat their homes or hover in the air, to create airships which cross the skies or to shoot a monster with a heat ray because, you know, humans (in RPGs) like to kill monsters.

On the edge of Qi, a city of the world, in the poor quarter, two young children have gone missing. Children go missing all the time, and they always come home when they are hungry. It is an easy case; reassure the parents, make a show of looking for them. With that in mind, new recruits to The Lawkeepers are assigned the case. Oh, and the circus is in town, kids love the circus and you know what people say about circuses.

It is a simple set up to lead our intrepid (barely competent heroes) on their first experience of Numenera from Monte Cook Games. Set in the far future with all manner of weird and wonderful creatures to talk to, fight, or run away from, and devices to be found, experimented with, and hope they do not blow up in your hand. It makes a great change of pace from Dungeons and Dragons and the system is simple and easy to understand, but has a great deal of flexibility built into it (at least the way I play it…).

Numenera - mountains

Now, here is the thing I love about it (apart from the whole writing adventures, using imagination bit). As GM, I do not have to roll a single dice. Not one. All I have to do is think, look for opportunities, and make sure the players enjoy their time in the world.

“Hang on,” I hear those of you who GM for D&D ask, “you don’t roll any dice?”

Nope. Not one. That does mean the players have to know what their characters can do—what skills, spells, and attacks they have. Better still the only die needed is a D20. I probably need to explain a little, for clarity’s sake, and also so you might be tempted to give this system a go.

It works like this. Every task, attack, monster, defence, spell, cypher (device) is of a level from 0 to 10, and each level is worth 3 on the D20. Simple. Level 1 is 3, Level 5 is 15, Level 10 is 30 (on a D20… how do you get a roll of 30? All will, I hope, become clear(er)).

Numenera - valley

So, Kyrin the Glaive (fighter type) is swinging his forearm blade at a Thread Walker. The Walker is level 4, so Kyrin needs to roll higher than 4 (level) x 3 (D20) = 12. So, 13 or higher hits. It is a light weapon, which all do 2 damage, but the Walker has 1 armour, so 2 (weapon) – 1 (armour) = 1 aamage. He rolls and hits. Go, Kyrin.

Now the Walker gets to attack Kyrin. It punches, but here it is Kyrin who roles to defend following the same rules. He must roll 13 or higher to defend against the attack. But Kyrin is hurt and doesn’t want to take any more damage so he applies effort to reduce the level of the roll…

“He what?”

Ah, my fault. Take it back a bit. Each character has three pools, Might, Speed, and Intelligence from which they can draw and take damage to. Only when all are depleted, are they beaten. However, a character can use their pool to make tasks easier. Spending 3 speed points will make defending easier by 1 level, and 2 more points for every level after.

Kyrin spends 3 points of Speed to make the defence easier. Instead of a level 4 defence, it is now a level 3. 

3 (level) x 3 (D20) = 9. Now all Kyrin needs to do is roll a 10 or higher. Those 3pts are spent and his speed pool is reduced by that amount.

It really is simple and as soon as you start playing it makes a lot of sense, once the players get the hang of spending their points.

Numenera - cypher

Anyway, all the mechanics are built along these lines. It can make designing encounters a little hit and miss at the beginning because a level 1 mob is no threat—just remember your heroes, even at level 1, are heroes and can do more than you expect. Also, a quick Google search reveals some handy cheat sheets for developing encounters with actual threats.

The cyphers left behind by the ancient civilisations are the treasures to be found, used and traded. Helmets that allow telepathy, pills that give you the ability to breathe poisons, broken bits of machines that with a bit of wood, carefully shaped and attached with glue make temporary ray gun, a glove that sets you on fire but you remain unhurt, a sphere that defies gravity, and more and more. Let your imagination run free.

For the GM, there is the joy of planning, but more than that there are interventions. When the GM thinks it appropriate or just to create choices, or risk, the GM can intervene, but the players may reject it. Again, the system is simple, like the whole of the game. As GM, you decide there should be an intervention and you give two XP (experience points) to one character, one of which they keep and one they pass to a player who has helped them, if they accept the intervention. If they reject the intervention, they must pay one XP. Only 4 are needed to level up a characteristic.

Numenera - ship

Oh, and XP can be used, spent, to have a die re-rolled, to gain a temporary skill, or as just mentioned to level up. It all puts control in the players hands—gives them agency, so they can impact the narrative. 

There are a lot of handy guides, monster manuals, source books available to support your games, but you are free to be as weird as you like when designing adventures. And with a such a simple system, it is no surprise that the overarching Cypher System can be used for fantasy, detective, and superhero adventures. I splashed out on an XP deck (cards), which makes giving XP a bit more tangible, and a cypher deck that randomises the generation of…well…cyphers.

My group have yet to find the children, but they’re closing in. Together we’re getting to know the world, the characters and what works for us. I love the system, it is simple, and it frees up the GM to be inspired, to be creative.

Give it a go. You won’t regret it.

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