So a couple of us played another game of Numenera recently, and despite our initial hesitation and previous concerns, we had a good time.
We are actually implementing one of the rules I thought up: combining the two sets of XP rules by making it so that you have to spend XP on a reroll or a benefit, before it transfers to your "actually learned something" pool. The idea behind this was twofold: firstly to make sure everyone roughly balanced out, and secondly because I actually find that mechanic quite elegant. Your nebulous "experience" lets you achieve something within the game (like recovering from a near-failure, or gaining familiarity with an activity, etc.) and that learning experience builds towards you gaining a permanent benefit. Of course, the permanent thing you gain may not actually relate to what you learned, so... look, I tried.
We did once again run into the sense of vague disappointment when you look at the low-level abilities. This can happen a lot; it's very tempting to keep feeling like the next level will be the one where you're finally awesome and completely satisfied with your character, and it never is.* But examining the low-level Numenera powers does seem to show up that they are genuinely quite limited.
* I actually think this is an argument in favour of sometimes playing non-levelling characters (basically iconics) rather than always using levelling systems. In theory, you should be able to make a character who does what you want them to do, and then play without that vague shadow of dissatisfaction and anticipation distracting you from what you're doing now.
For example, the Nano is the 'esoteric powers' type, and I tend to associate that with having an array of different mystical capabilities even at low level. I think most people do. Unless you're playing (or reading, or watching) in a setting where the majority of player characters do Weird Shit, I think the assumption is generally that the Weird Shit Doer is defined by breadth. Generally speaking, you have some sort of dynamic like: the Fighter, the Thief and the Mage. Or, the Brute, the Face and the Mystic. Or, the Merc, the Tech and the Psychic. Even in Warhammer 40K, where often the whole party do quite similar things professionally (especially Deathwatch), the psyker ends up as the one who not only interacts most with anything supernatural, but also has the broadest range of knowledge in general, and has access to several different psychic powers of which most can be used flexibly.
This is partly because magic-type stuff is very strongly associated with intellect in most games I've run across. That doesn't have to be the case (as I've discussed before). But because it is, magic-users and psychics are typically also very intelligent, and so typically know a lot of things. They may have access to skills other people don't, which essentially gives them new subsystems to play with. They may just get more Skill Points or whatever you're calling them, and so get to be accomplished at more types of task than others.
A further complication is that, because a spell (and I'm just going to stick with "spell" here) allows you to break the normal rules of the game and indeed of physics, each spell essentially creates a new subsystem for you. The spellcaster can now do A Thing that other characters cannot do; they have a new tool to apply to problems.
If you consider the D&D wizard - and I know that's not the only comparator, but it's the one staring you aggressively in the face - then a starting-level wizard from 3rd edition onward typically knows a handful of cantrips plus two or three individual spells. Moreover, some of those spells are quite specific (typically combat spells), but utility spells often leave a lot of room for creativity: you can do a huge amount with mage hand (minor telekinesis), prestidigitation (basically any minor magical trick), unseen servant and so on. You can play tricks, gaslight NPCs, distract monsters, drop objects from a height, impress NPCs, carefully arrange large numbers of small objects in complicated arrays to do things at a distance (set off a trap, injure an enemy, break down a door, pull a lever, press a button...), convince an NPC that food has been poisoned, convince an NPC that food hasn't been poisoned, pass objects between cages suspended in the air, retrieve something from a grating...
What the Nano can do is, in comparison, extremely limited and often very specific. The Hedge Magic esotery is roughly equivalent to prestidigitation, but there is no mage hand. The Push esotery allows you to shove a creature or object violently away from you, but specifically can't be used to push a lever or otherwise interact with the environment. The Scan esotery lets you scan a three-metre cube and determine the type of material and energy present, but it's relatively expensive and is an instantaneous thing, rather than a lingering ability. Other abilities can be used all the time, like Ward (permanent armour) or Onslaught (an attack which, for a Nano, is usually free).
But on reflection, I don't think there's anything specifically wrong with that. What can the other characters do? Well, the Glaive gets a selection of static bonuses to their combat abilities, and a couple of general physical boosts. The Nano gets a little from the Glaive and a little from the Nano. In other words, as far as I can see, the Nano isn't less interesting than the other two; it's just that the Nano isn't significantly more interesting (in terms of variety and scope), and I think we are generally trained to expect that.
The Nano begins with two of the following abilities. "Permanent" means always-on. "Without limit" means your Edge lets you cover the 1-point cost of an abilit without spending from your pool so you can do it as many times as you want under normal circumstances:
- a relatively powerful ranged attack*, without limit
- a long-ranged telekinetic shove**
- a permanent magic shield that improves your Armour by 1 - this is genuinely really good
- scanning a 3-metre cube and learning the mechanical Level of entities within it (which largely determines how dangerous they are) plus information about matter and energy composition
- performing a wide variety of small temporary magical effects, without limit
* Onslaught does 4 damage at range, or 2 damage ignoring armour but to Intellect (this is, in almost all cases, functionally equivalent to all other damage). This is as good as a Medium ranged weapon, or better if the target is heavily armoured. Medium ranged weapons are pretty expensive - ammo is particularly expensive. None of your "20 arrows for 1gp", this is 12 arrows for 5gp, which is as much as medium armour, most weapons, and so on. Getting free unlimited ranged attacks is genuinely valuable. You can even use it to destroy terrain and objects through patient attack, which isn't feasible for an archer.
**"short range" is the second distance category, about 50', which is really quite a long range to be able to forcibly shove an object from.
The Glaive begins with two of the following abilities:
- do less damage on a hit but slightly hamper the target for 1 round, without limit
- fight unarmed as though you have a medium weapon (a sword or whatever), permanently
- do +1 damage on a hit if using a pointy ranged weapon, without limit
- do +1 damage on a hit if using a sharp melee weapon, without limit
- a small defensive boost when not wearing armour
I would note that at low levels, much of the time, the first ability is strictly worse than not using it. For example, fighting a Level 2 creature with Armour 2 and 6hp, a Glaive with a medium weapon does 2 damage normally. Do you want to kill the not-particularly-powerful enemy in 6 rounds, while making it always slightly less likely that it causes you 2 damage, or do you want to kill it in 3 rounds and allow it half as many attacks?
Similarly, because Glaives can wear at least 2 points of armour without penalty, and this is quite a lot of armour, the last option is mostly there to allow for playing a character who's narratively unarmoured without a substantial effectiveness penalty.
The Jack begins with two of the following abilities:
- do +1 damage on a hit if using a slightly weird range of weapons, without limit
- do +1 damage on a hit if using a sharp melee weapon, without limit
- do +1 damage on a hit if using a pointy ranged weapon, without limit
- performing a wide variety of small temporary magical effects, without limit
- wear medium armour without it slowly sapping your life (same as the Glaive), permanently
- defend yourself slightly better, permanently
- a small defensive boost when not wearing armour, permanently
So... one of these choices actually gives you a new ability (Hedge Magic). Three of them increase damage, and they're just the same power tailored to different weapon choices. One is a small mechanical boost to defence. One essentially allows you to wear armour at all.* The other makes you tougher when not wearing armour.
* Wearing armour you are not Practiced in (which is not the same as training, you cannot Train in armour) causes you to lose points from your pools once per hour. This is directly equivalent to taking damage. If you wear heavy armour for 12 hours continuously, you will die. Strictly speaking, simply putting on a suit of armour and sitting still all day is fatal. Oh, and you incur a cap on your Speed Pool size until you take it off.
Examining that list, it looks to me as though the Nano is still relatively interesting. The Glaive has exactly one "new ability" and it's a minor mechanical combat trick with exactly one application; all the others are strict mechanical tweaks relating almost exclusively* to combat, and the only choice is whether you want free extra damage. The Jack has one of the Nano's options (Hedge Magic) that gives a new ability; all the others are strict mechanical tweaks relating almost exclusively to combat* and the only choice is whether you want free extra damage. The Nano has one permanent boost that relates mostly to combat*; one new attack form that is at least as good as most weapons and more flexible than any (although if you have it, using it or not is hardly a choice); one new ability to gather information that's of broad application; one new ability (Push) that's usable inside and outside combat, though its application is relatively restricted; and one new ability that can be of wide application depending on player creativity and GM flexibility.
* Defensive benefits are of course useful whenever you might take damage, so there's some occasional application in dangerous bits of exploration.
Of the five Nano options, I think three are genuinely reasonably interesting specific abilities to have, Ward is more of a narrative choice that you want to be tough, and Onslaught is kind of a no-brainer but not strictly obligatory. Knowing two of those (of which one is probably Onslaught) is a significant limitation compared to being a wizard in D&D, no doubt about it. Yet this isn't D&D.
There's a side issue as well, which is that Nanos are always trained in numenera. That is, they are trained at dealing with the magical-scientific weirdness of the setting, the weirdness so pervasive that the entire setting is named for it. If there's a weird machine, a forcefield, an artefact, a monolith, a robot, a cypher, a gadget, a woobly monster or anything like it, they can know stuff about it, and quite possibly interact with it, better than anyone else in the party. I know it's not a choice on the player's part, but I think that's a genuinely meaningful benefit in terms of doing the weird shit.
Ironically, although I started out focusing on the Nano, I think what this best demonstrates is that the Glaive feels dull in its choices. The fact that you have choices at all, but none of them do a great deal, is weirdly I think more disappointing than not having those choices and just getting a flat +1 boost to damage.
To be honest, the bit of Numenera characters that seems coolest is the foci. You have options like: Bears a Halo of Fire, Commands Mental Powers, Controls Beasts, Controls Gravity, Employs Magnetism, Exists Partially Out of Phase, Fuses Flesh and Steel, Rides the Lightning, Talks to Machines and so on. Don't those sound cool?
Okay, some sound less cool. Carries a Quiver and Entertains are completely mundane things anyone can do - they just offer mechanical bonuses. Crafts Unique Objects is, like most things that hang on crafting systems, suited to a very specific playstyle. There's several fighting style ones that, in a game which I consider to be pretty forgiving of flavour, just don't quite seem necessary when I can just say I'm Fighting With Panache. And Works the Back Alleys is frankly unfortunate.
I have already written extensively about the baffling inclusion of Howls at the Moon.
Let's take a look at the actual abilities though.
- Bears a Halo of Fire lets you damage anyone who attacks you melee, as often as you want. Potent, but specific.
- Carries a Quiver lets you do more damage with a bow and spend from different pools. Useful, but very specific.
- Commands Mental Powers lets you talk to nearby allies via telepathy. Sometimes useful, fairly specific.
- Controls Beasts gives you a beast companion. Not very powerful, but moderately flexible.
- Controls Gravity lets you hover in the air and move slowly. Sometimes useful, but specific.
- Crafts Illusions lets you create a single illusion in a 3m cube within a few metres. Sometimes useful and moderately flexible.
- Crafts Unique Objects grants you training in two crafting skills. Usefulness and flexibility depends entirely on the campaign.
- Employs Magnetism lets you telekinetise a metal object for non-combat use. Useful and moderately flexible.
- Entertains gives a small passive bonus to recovery during rest. Slightly useful but very specific.
- Exists Partially Out of Phase lets you slowly move through solid matter. Useful but fairly specific.
- Explores Dark Places gives you training in several skills. Useful and fairly flexible.
- Fights with Panache lets you give a bonus to allies whenever you attack. Potent but specific.
- Focuses Mind over Matter gives you a slight defensive boost. Moderately useful but specific.
- Fuses Flesh and Steel gives you some slight permanent boosts. Moderately useful but specific.
- Howls at the Moon gives you an ability that, by RAW, you can't control and is far more likely to be a severe liability to the party and yourself than in any way useful.
- Hunts with Great Skill gives you some skill training. Moderately useful and fairly flexible.
- Leads gives you some skill training and you can always 'advise' another character to grant a bonus. Useful and fairly flexible, but liable to lead to some rather repetitive (and perhaps quite irritating) playstyles.
- Lives in the Wilderness grants some skill training. Sometimes useful but fairly specific.
- Masters Defence makes you slightly better at using a shield. Moderately useful but very specific.
- Masters Weaponry lets you do +1 damage with your favourite weapon. Useful but very specific.
- Murders lets you do sneak attacks for slightly more damage, and gives you stealth training. Useful but quite specific.
- Rages lets you... it's mechanicsy. Look, it makes you slightly better in combat, okay? Useful but fairly specific.
- Rides the Lightning lets you add a little electrical damage to an attack, and also recharge some devices. Useful but fairly specific.
- Talks to Machines lets you activate most types of machine at a distance. Useful and quite flexible.
- Wears a Sheen of Ice gives you armour and protection from cold. Useful but very specific.
- Wields Power with Precision gives you more points in your mental pool. Slightly useful but quite specific (depends what you do with them of course).
- Wields Two Weapons at Once lets you mechanically dual-wield two light weapons. Honestly not that useful for most characters most of the time, and very specific.
- Works Miracles lets you heal. Useful but very specific.
- Works the Back Alleys gives you training in a few thiefy skills. Somewhat useful but quite specific.
I think in some ways the best comparators here are the X-Men. No, really. Think about these splats. They're the same kind of one-phrase descriptors you'd slap on a mutant with one shtick.
Wears a Sheen of Ice feels a bit like Iceman. But you can't control ice, shape ice, craft barriers, walk through ice, walk on ice, or anything like that. You're just a bit armoured with ice.
Rides the Lightning just lets you shock people. You can't impress people with lighting powers, repel or absorb electrical attacks, control machines with a touch, stun robots, or actually ride any kind of lightning. You can recharge powerful magical items, if you have any.
Employs Magnetism lets you move one metal object around fairly slowly. I actually think this is the most interesting of the powers, which is why I chose it this time - it's genuinely quite flexible. You can't usually use it in combat, but there's a lot of possibilities in the exploration end of things. Technically you can also use it to fly by just standing on something metal.
Controls Gravity doesn't actually let you control gravity in any sense. You can just levitate a bit. You can't walk on walls, make heavy objects float to carry them around, pin enemies to the floor, make incoming arrows fly up into the sky, and so on.
So although the Foci sound very flavourful and fun, they are actually far more restricted in most cases than we tend to expect. I think they fall into an unfortunate uncanny valley: they sound like a Fate Aspect or a handwavy superpower or perhaps a Mage Arcana that lets you do a wide variety of thematically-appropriate stuff, but they are mechanically extremely traditional and more akin to a heavily-balanced D&D spell or special ability.
What Makes a Man?
People, most definitely including me, tend to have D&D in their heads when playing Numenera. This is entirely natural. It looks like D&D, it's by one of the designers of D&D, you basically play a fantasy adventurer like in D&D, you have a fighty one and a magicky one and a tricksy one like in D&D, you roll d20s like in D&D. But it is a genuinely different game that works in some genuinely different ways
D&D has Race + Class. Numenera has Descriptor + Type + Focus, and your Type is very much not mechanically equivalent to a D&D class.
Numenera is also keen to remind you that Cyphers are a major part of the game; you are supposed to use them regularly. I believe they play a bigger part in determining not only how powerful you are, but also what kinds of things you can do, than is the case of magic items in D&D. I am very sceptical as to whether this is a good thing; it depends on what the game wants to be, but it does appear to work against its stated position on what defines your character.
Specific vs. Generic
I think one of the deceptively-different facets of Numenera is that the weight of abilities falls differently to other games that it looks like. Most trad roleplaying games tend to emphasise the specific named rule-bending special abilities that your particular class, splat or species grants you.
A Numenera character is not equivalent to a 3rd+ edition D&D character in terms of named special abilities.
A Numenera character in some ways significantly surpasses a 3rd+ edition D&D character in terms of generic ability.
I think Numenera is less about applying special abilities than D&D is, and expects a more wide-ranging style of play. I think in a lot of cases, the special abilities are the equivalent of a TV character's shtick that they apply once per episode to significant effect, rather than something they do continually. Of course, you can use most special abilities multiple times per day, but you get the idea.
I think Numenera expects you to spend more time doing things that aren't specifically on your character sheet, because you are generically quite competent at absolutely everything. This requires quite a big change of mindset and I think it's something I struggle with, at least.
The most obvious example is that when we first played, we had a Glaive and a Nano and a Jack, and as the Nano I kept talking about how we weren't any good in combat. This is completely, 100%, factually untrue. We were exactly as good at hitting things with weapons as the Glaive was. The Glaive had some special abilities that gave damage bonuses or special riders in combat, and had a bigger pool of Might points to spend on attacking, and was allowed to wield Large weapons.
The latter is actually the major difference, because doing 6 damage minus armour is massively better than doing 2 or even 4 damage minus armour, considering most things have about 12hp. If the thing has armour, this can be the difference between "reliably hurting Thing" and "being mechanically unable to hurt Thing at all unless you roll a 19 or 20", which is like the difference between zero and infinity. If the thing has no armour, this is the difference between killing it in two hits and killing it in six hits.
I did some maths.
- A light weapon user can kill a Level 3 enemy (a lot of common threats) in 8 rounds, a level 4 in 14 rounds, and a level 5 in 25 rounds.
- A medium weapon user requires 4, 7 and 12 rounds respectively.
- A heavy weapon user requires 3, 5 and 9 rounds respectively.
- If the creature has Armour 2, a light weapon user cannot kill it by conventional attack, only through critical rolls, or finding a way to gain additional damage.
- The medium weapon user requires 8, 14 and 25 rounds respectively.
- The heavy weapon user requires 4, 7 and 12 rounds respectively.
It's almost impossible to overstate how important armour is in this game, and the impact of that on weapon choice. The crucial take-home is that Nanos absolutely require the Onslaught power, because (unless they choose to take a weapon they're not proficient with and suffer permanent penalties) it is the only way they can reliably harm an enemy with 2 points of armour, which is relatively common - many low-level enemies have 2 armour, though higher armour is thankfully relatively rare.
But still, we were entirely competent in combat. Compared to, say, a D&D wizard, who can easily be so ineffectual at attacking and so vulnerable to damage that it's genuinely a party liability for them to try and fight, a Nano is a very competent combatant.
But forget combat for a minute. This is one of the non-obvious subtleties of the Numenera system.
If you want to sweet-talk a Level 3 NPC, you need to roll a 9 on 1d20. Everyone is inherently equally good at doing this, even if they don't have an appropriate skill, and your chances of success are quite high. You can even spend points from your Intellect pool to drop that to, at worst, a 6+ on 1d20. In contrast, sweet-talking a guard in D&D would likely be a Moderate DC15 (roll 15+ on 1d20), meaning that only an actively charismatic PC is liable to succeed.
Similarly, everyone can climb cliffs, leap chasms, sneak!, tinker with machinery, or attempt to decode ancient writings. There are some characters who are actively skilled in those things, but the benefit is relatively small (a +3, basically, so +15%).
What this means is that a lot of the time in Numenera, any character can attempt to react to a situation in whatever way seems sensible, and their chances of succeeding are far higher than a D&D-attuned brain tends to estimate. And this is something that's genuinely difficult to adjust to. I know, because I ran into these credence issues from both directions when playing Deathwatch. I regularly wanted to apply skills when I had a remarkably small chance of succeeding despite expensive training, and I tended to underestimate the likely effectiveness of certain combat tactics.
So I think what Numenera expects from you is different, in a way I haven't quite worked out yet; and partly as a result, I think the named abilities on your character sheet tend to be either of limited use, or constant benefits that feel mechanically dull. I think you need to step high, wide and plentiful with gleeful exuberance, and expect that the system and the GM will support your far-reaching interpretation of what you can reasonable attempt. Of course I can do this. I'm a hero.
It reminds me in some ways of, for example, a lot of pulpy and action films. Of course the protagonist can fool the guard. Of course the protagonist can solve the riddle. Of course the protagonist can fly the plane. And so on.
I don't think these excuse Numenera from the fact that these abilities seem underwhelming. How a game makes you feel is important. I think this particularly in the light of its presentation: much is made of the idea that You Are An Adjective Noun Who Verbs, whereas mechanically you're very much more of a Verbing Noun who is a bit Adjectival, and I think if looked at holistically, you are actually An Adventurer Noun Who Verbs and Is a Bit Adjectival. That is to say, I think that the bulk of your effectiveness in Numenera actually comes from being a Player Character, with your Noun and Verb giving you a small package of abilities to colour your capabilities, and your Adjective being of very small benefit.
It's not what I'd do with an Adjective Noun who Verbs system, not at all. But I'd like to try and play it for the game that it is, not the one I'd expect it to be.
Tradition, Story and Numenera's Dilemmera
I'm getting the sense that Numenera suffers from a continuing tension over where it wants to fall on the loose spectrum between a Traditional RPG and a narrative game.
A very high proportion of abilities are actually just rather bland purely mechanical benefits: a flat bonus to this, or training (equivalent to a bonus) in that. I'm not sure why these are thought to make your character cooler. The names sound cool, but do they feel cool?
Mostly what I feel makes me cooler is Being Able to Do a Thing. It's being set apart from others in a qualitative or semi-qualitative fashion: being able to break the rules, or to interact in a way others can't, or to understand something others don't. Or, in a low-mechanics game, it's flavour and character and background. And I can't help wondering if, despite being very mechanicsy and trad-RPGish, Numenera would actually like you to focus on the latter and treat any mechanical benefits or new abilites as mere perks. But I think in that case, its approach of having specific and discrete powers works against that, at least by setting expectations.
On the one hand, Numenera offers you a template that looks a lot like trad-RPG Race + Class. Yet as I've argued, much of your mechanical competence comes from simply being a Player Character, which feels more storygamey.
On the one hand, Numenera offers you an array of foci that seem to be broad-brush archetypes of Stuff You Can Do, as I'd expect in a storygame - is "Covered in Fire" not an ideal shorthand for a flexible story-focused game? Yet mechanically, they offer you a single specific benefit, and often one which is a pure bonus with no additional flexibility or options to make your character feel more interest; something more typical of a Trad RPG.
One the one hand, Numenera seems to offer a Fighter, Mage, Rogue triad that defines your playstyle and capabilities, exactly what a Trad RPG tends to do. Yet the latter two, at least, are much more combat-ready than their Trad RPG niche generally permits, partly because they have far less in the way of niche abilities.
On the one hand, Numenera has specific templates that offer specific powers that do specific things, which feels very Trad. But on the other hand, you are encouraged to make up your own skill lists and to try things you have no particular training in, which feels very storygamey.
On the one hand, Numenera has no particular rules for combat: you can attempt anything, there's a flat target number for the enemy based on how "powerful" it is, and the GM simply determines what modifiers might apply and exactly what the outcome means. This feels like a loose, flexible narrative combat system from a storygame. Yet almost everything in the rulebook is a monster that hungers for your flesh and can't be negotiated with, and there's a simply but highly mechanical damage system that goes as far as having fixed damage amounts and subtractive armour, which means some characters literally can't hurt some others, which feels quite Trad to me.
On the one hand, Numenera has a quite specific setting with very highly-described locations, artefacts, monsters, individuals, political systems and even local economies. Yet it's also very handwavy about exactly how any of this is supposed to work as a functioning world, what anyone actually does with their time, what life is like for the people, and all the other details that allow you to run a simulationist-by-default campaign.
And of course, to top it all off, Monte Cook then goes and tells us that actually what's really important about the system is... the cyphers. The ten-a-penny one-shot minor magical items you roll up on random tables from looting enemies and ruins. He describes these as "more like abilities and less like gear", and goes so far as to name the entire game mechanical system The Cypher System. And the thing is... given how limited and specific most of the actual chosen character abilities are, quite often having a cypher that can do X will indeed be at least as powerful as anything you can do, and they do indeed grant a meaningful expansion of your capabilities. Sometimes a dramatic one. You can easily have one cypher that lets you climb sheer surfaces, one that offers remote viewing at unlimited distance, and one that translates any language. Bearing in mind you'll typically start play with three abilities, at least one of which is usually a flat bonus... that's a big increase in options.
The end result is that I never know which lens I should be looking at the game through: am I thinking like a mechanical Trad Gamer who knows exactly what I can do and how and when, or a narrative Storygamer who takes cues from general descriptions to collaboratively create a wonder-filled story of exploration and adventure? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and it's hard to find.
The bottom line
I think Numenera is perhaps more sophisticated than I initially gave it credit for. Unfortunately, I think context will hinder it. You can only play a game in the context that exists. I don't think the expectations raised by all the games that have come before allow us to approach a game with classes and levels and specific special abilities and modifiers, like Numenera, with a mindset that what's really cool and important about my character is how I think about them. Particularly when the game iself tells me otherwise - tells me that I'm an Adjective Noun who Verbs.
When I think, at the core of it all, when all pretence is stripped away, I'm a guy walking across a desert of broken civilisations a billion years in the future, breathing nanotech and looking up at artificial stars, scavenging forgotten miracles for a few measly shins.