Review: Numenera (Part 1) – Discovery

TM and © 2019 Monte Cook Games, LLC

This will be the first of many blog posts reviewing products from Monte Cook Games. With that said, it’s kind of a funny thing, writing this particular blog post that I know people are going to read.  I’ll tell you that I feel an obligation to be objective, despite this being my absolute favorite intellectual property in tabletop role-playing games, and I intend to do my best to maintain that objectivity.  But if some of my “fanboy” seeps through, I’m going to have to just apologize in advance, and you, my dear reader, are simply going to have to accept it.

Numenera was a game changer for me.

I remember when I first started reading the introductory fiction, the Amber Monolith.  The story of Calaval and his pet thuman, Feddik, on their journey of discovery struck me as powerful.  I actually still have a hard time getting through the fate of Feddik at the hands of a horror that seemed so bizarre to me – the Iron Wind.

It was a powerful introduction to a system that seemed to me, a long-time veteran of other properties (in particular, Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun).  Like the Iron Wind, the mechanics that would eventually become generalized into what is now known as the Cypher System were difficult for me to wrap my head around at first.  Something in the back of my mind told me that I had something different in my hands.  Something that would be important to me.  But I didn’t get it at first, despite my efforts to try it with Joann and another, long-time friend of ours.

Fast forward about a year and a half.  I pulled it out once more, because I enjoy reading role-playing rule books and supplements in my spare time (yes, I’m weird that way).  Reading the sections in Part 7: Running the Game, Monte’s design vision clicked in my mind and I felt my paradigm shift.  Joann can attest – I couldn’t stop talking about it.  We tried again.  It finally clicked, and I was hooked.

Fast forward again to the reason behind this blog post.  Monte Cook games came out with a revised edition of Numenera, called Numenera: Discovery and its companion book, Numenera: Destiny.  I’m going to take a look at Discovery in this post.  Even though it’s been out for a couple of years now, perhaps something in here will help a new player or GM that’s sitting on the fence to take the plunge, a billion years into Earth’s future,  in my favorite RPG.


Production Quality

Working on Angel’s Citadel is only a part time job for me.  In the daytime, I am an Engineering Manager that deals with manufactured plastics.  Having worked in manufacturing for about 13 years now, I know a thing or two about what goes into taking something from concept to production.  Admittedly, we’re talking about a book and not an ignition assembly for a Harley Davidson or a microfiber mop, but the process is, in principle anyway, very similar.

I first became aware of Monte Cook Games’ physical products in 2017.  Since that time, I have never, and I mean not even once, been disappointed in the production quality.  The covers of the hardback books are heavy-duty cardboard, with excellent gluing and binding  Upon opening them, the spine does not seem to crack, and none of the pages come free.  Printing and images are sharp and the paper they use is excellent quality and does not smear easily, even with normal amounts of body oil on the fingers.  I am not entirely sure who their printer and bookbinder is, but they are to be commended on what is some quality workmanship.  Believe me, I have seen much worse recently, though I will not name any names.

The layout, directed by MCG Art Director Bear Weiter, is crisp, clean, and easy to read, with excellent selection of font, color, and images.  All are vivid and add to the overall package to produce what feels like a premium quality book.


Content

With no real organizational changes from the original edition, Numenera: Discovery still adds value and is not a simple reprint with updated cover or interior art and minor layout tweaks.  The character types (particularly the Jack was re-looked at) and the Armor rules (changing usage from a Might cost to a Speed Effort cost) were two of the biggest rule changes for me, but the biggest addition, by far, was Player Intrusions.  The ability of the Player to spend XP for fantastic things to happen in much the same way that a GM Intrusion gives XP for fantastic things to happen.

The rule system is still simple, with the essential mechanic you need to know spelled right out on page 100:

  1. Tell the GM what you want to do
  2. The GM decides if a roll needs to be made, then sets a difficulty for the task and assigns a stat pool to base it off of
  3. The player and the GM determine if anything modifies the difficulty level either easing or hindering it (skills, assets, effort, special conditions, etc…)
  4. If the level remains non-zero, the target number is set. If it is zero, the character automatically succeeds (though they can opt to roll anyway for special results)
  5. The player rolls 1d20. If they roll equal or higher, they succeed.

That’s it. That’s all there is. The rest of the rules deal (basically) with step 3 and the things that can modify the difficulty level of the challenge.

The Numenera setting is breathtaking, with dozens of pages of locations throughout the Steadfast, the Beyond, and Beyond the Beyond.  Now, coming from a background of feeling like you need to detail every little thing in your campaign world (probably brought on by the exhaustive but awesome Forgotten Realms setting books of AD&D and D&D 3/3.5E), when I first encountered this section, I felt like I needed more.  I began to wonder how I was going to create what felt like a living, breathing setting if I had no idea what was between these locations that were separated by such vast distances.

I was wrong.

With the design of Numenera and the Cypher System, improvisation is remarkably easy, and locations, just like NPCs and Creatures can be tailored to the needs of the campaign on the spot. Simply set a difficulty level from 1 to 10 using the handy chart on page 15 and the relative “feel” guidance there.   With things like the Ruin Deck or Jade Colossus, whipping up prior-world ruins that feel like you spent hours creating them is a breeze. And if what’s given there isn’t weird enough for you, Chapter 22 (“Realizing the Ninth World”) has plenty of advice for you, along with other helpful products like the Weird Deck or the Glimmer “Injecting the Weird“.   After a while, I began to see the wisdom in the approach they had taken.  Giving just enough setting detail (84 pages with 6-7 entries typically per geographic “section”) to give you a feel for a given geographical area and the social and political climate, but leaving TONS of space for an individual GM to make it their own (along with possible locations marked on the map) is a theme that they have carried through to their other products.  Once I understood how to work within the system in that space… I don’t want to do anything else.

As with the original version, where I think that Numenera (and the adjacent Cypher System games really shine) is in the section Running the Game, where the designers give vast amounts of advice and examples and descriptions to help new GM’s and ones that are coming from other systems wrap their heads around this paradigm shift that is the Cypher System.  For me, these sections were the real treasure of this book.  Full of ideas about pacing, injecting weird into your game, encounters, the theory behind the difficulty level mechanic and adjudicating it, and tons of other gems. Throughout the whole book, the attention to detail by Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Sean K. Reynolds is obvious, along with their commitment to create a setting and a rule set that is easy to run and captures the imagination in new and interesting ways.

This book also includes three adventures, walking a new GM through more or less what it takes to run a Numenera game. One of them, called Legacy (on page 388) is a little different though. It introduces the GM to the instant adventure format popularized by other Numenera products such as Weird Discoveries and Explorer’s Keys (we’ll review those later as well). Emphasizing quick prep and maximum flexibility, this is an ideal format for pickup games on nights when your friends come over and say, “We bought pizza and we want you to run Numenera for us…” (Because that happens all the time… right?)


Critique

While I love Numenera: Discovery, and I do.  There is one thing that bothers me about the book.  It’s the same thing bothered me with the original edition.  That is the difficulty of finding things.  Allow me to explain:

The aesthetic of the book is wonderful and includes margin notes which provide excellent flavor text (and I really love how they look in a book).  Occasionally, however, they also provide rules.  Beyond that, there are some topics that appear in different parts of the book.  While this is not usually repeated information that I recall, they lead me to my issue.

When you look at the index, while there are many, many topics listed, which is a fantastic thing, there is only a single page listed for each topic (ostensibly, the “main” page).  In my personal, humble opinion, it would be more useful to have the list of topics remain, but have each section that included rules for that topic have the page listed in the index.  If, by chance, the rule is given in a sidebar, simply put an ‘s’ after the page number (eg. ‘121(s)’).  That way, if I know that there is a specific rule that I’m looking for, and it doesn’t happen to be on the main page for that rule set, I can still use the index to find it (even if it’s in a sidebar), and I don’t have to worry about whether or not the text itself references another page.

There is, in fact, a solution. This problem is not really a problem in the PDF version of the book where you have a search function. However, as one of those weirdos that actually prefers the print copy of the books (I’m a tactile kind of guy, and there’s nothing really quite like the smell of books – I love it). I use the PDF copies because it’s so much easier to tote around and I can’t ignore the drastic reduction in weight of going to a tablet, but, that’s not really a “solution”, it’s a work-around.


Summary

This barely scratches the surface of Numenera for me, but we’ll get Destiny reviewed soon.  We’ll be reviewing the vast majority (if not all) of the current Numenera line eventually along with the bulk of the other products MCG has put out, because as we say on our homepage, “Our goal is to be the premier source and catalog of information on Playing and Running games created by Monte Cook Games.”  I hope, if you haven’t already, you give Numenera a try.  It is near and dear to my heart.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

2 thoughts on “Review: Numenera (Part 1) – Discovery

  1. I love numenera and with more than 10 sessions played, that way of generating imagination (fiction) of anything, an image or ideas that come to mind and interpreting them with the rules make the game flow in a way never seen before myself.
    Unfortunately my publisher (Spanish) does not translate almost anything of the content of numenera, the game needs these to give more life and to play more in Spanish.
    In any case, I will continue with this game and my campaign that gives me so much joy and fun.
    I really recommend it.

    Like

    1. I am so glad that you are able to enjoy Numenera. I am a Spanish-speaker myself, though I do not use it very often anymore. It means, however, that I understand a little bit about the difficulties of translating in wide-ranging languages. While I am not surprised that Monte Cook Games has not had it translated widely (due to the challenges of doing so), it does mean that things are more difficult for those who are non-native English speaking. I’m glad that you have been able to overcome that challenge to a degree. Espero que su groupo lo esta disfrutando su campaña tanto como esta disfrutandolo usted. Happy gaming!

      – Josh Walles

      Like

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