Numenera: First Thoughts

numeneraI was one of the many backers of the Numenera kickstarter last year. I’ve enjoyed games by Monte Cook in the past including Dungeons & Dragons 3e and Arcana Evolved, and the concept of a far-future, technology-is-magic role-playing game sounded interesting. I got my pdf copies of the Core Book and Player’s Guide about two weeks ago and have been reading through them a little bit at a time. The Core Book contains everything needed to play and run the game as well as a lot of setting material and 4 adventures. The Player’s Guide is essentially an excerpt from the Core Book that contains a very brief summary of the setting, the core mechanics, and character creation material.

Quick Version

Numenera at its heart is a relatively light weight rules system for a fantasy rpg where magic has be resigned as highly advanced technology from ancient civilizations. It has bits that remind me of themes from D&D 4e, Omega Tech from Gamma World, and fate points/compels from Fate all wrapped up into one package. If you’re looking for a new game to try and a far future science fantasy setting sounds interesting to you, then I think Numenera deserves a look.

Core Mechanics

While most actions in Numenera are resolved with a roll of a d20, the system is not a simple adaptation of the d20 System pioneered by D&D 3e. When a character attempts an action, the game master decides on a difficulty on a scale from 0 to 10. Tasks with a difficulty of 0 are routine tasks that almost any character can automatically succeed at without even needing to roll, while a task with a difficulty of 10 would be considered impossible by most people. A d20 roll of 3 times the difficulty is needed to succeed on a task. The interesting bit is in how skill and situations can either decrease of increase a task’s difficulty. For example, a character trained in lock-picking could decrease the difficulty of picking a lock from 6 to 5. These skills are open-ended rather than limited to a set list, so its possible for characters to be trained in anything that you can think up (assuming the game master agrees to it).


Character creation in Numenera consists of three main choices: type, descriptor, and focus. These three can be put together to say that your character is a [descriptor] [type] who [focuses]. For example, your character could be a graceful nano who rides the lightning or a stealthy glaive who carries a quiver. Type is what other games would consider a character class. The three types for Numenera are the glaive, nano, and jack. These three types are roughly analogous to warrior, mage, and rogue in more traditional fantasy role-playing games. Descriptors can be thought of as your character’s primary way of approaching problems and include options such as intelligent, mystical, stealthy, and tough. Mechanically they offer benefits and drawbacks, but they also include your character’s link to the group’s first adventure. The best analogy that I can think of for Foci are character themes in D&D 4e. Each focus offers a set of abilities that improve as your character advances, but the foci range from relatively mundane things like ‘lives in the wilderness’ to fantastical abilities like ‘bears a halo of fire’. Because none of the three character choices restrict your options for the others, there are a ton of possibilities for characters included in the core book (1044 possibilities if I did my math right).

In addition to the type, descriptor, and focus, each character has three core stats: might, speed, and intellect. These stats serve double duty as both a character’s life and a resource to spend on abilities. Damage is dealt to these abilities and when a character hits 0 in all three statistics, they die. The abilities also fuel a character’s special abilities though, so there should be a balancing act between spending your abilities to do cool things and making sure to keep them high enough to not risk death if you get into a tricky situation.

The Numenera

In Numenera’s setting, the word numenera refers to the various pieces of technology left behind by the highly advanced civilizations of the past. In a game, the characters will primarily deal with three categories of numenera: artifacts, oddities, and cyphers. Artifacts are devices that function reliably and improve or augment a character’s abilities. They end up filling a role analogous to magical items in D&D. Oddities are minor devices that don’t have much direct benefit, but I’d expect creative players to find uses for them throughout a game. For example, a music box or night-light could count as oddities. I think Cyphers are the most interesting category. They are single use pieces of technology cobbled that the characters have salvaged. Their randomness and single use nature remind me a lot of the Omega Tech cards from the most recent version of Gamma World. Because cyphers are single use and a character can only safely carry a few, they should see frequent use and lead to characters wielding different tech in each of their adventures.

The Ninth World

The people of Numenera’s setting refer to it as the Ninth World because they believe there have been 8 previous great civilizations that have each vanished. From the kickstarter, I wasn’t really expecting many setting details, but the core book actually contains about 100 pages describing the Ninth World. The setting is centered on a region controlled by nine nations known as the Steadfast. That core of current civilization is surrounded by a more wild region known as the Beyond. I still have yet to finish reading the setting section, but what I’ve read so far is full of neat ideas and plenty of inspiration for running games.

That said, I think I would have preferred a less complete setting presented more as a series of interesting places rather than a fully fleshed out setting with places marked on a map. Luckily, the game isn’t tightly coupled with the setting, so it should be pretty easy for game masters to take what they like from the Ninth World and change whatever they want to create their own version. Plus, a game set in the Beyond could easily ignore everything that isn’t nearby since those settlements are already described as isolated pockets of civilization surrounded by wilderness.

What’s Next?

Overall, I’m enjoying reading the book and looking forward to getting my hardcopy sometime soon. There are also a bunch of additional books that will be released during the next year including a bestiary, an expanded setting book, and a tech book. I’ll be getting pdf copies of those thanks to my kickstarter pledge, so I have plenty of Numenera material to look forward to. If you missed out on the kickstarter, the Core Book and Player’s Guide are available for sale today.

I’d like to try running a one shot game sometime in September to try out the system, so if you’re interested in playing let me know.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

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