Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Game Review - Numenera

Every once in a while there’s a product that’s a game changer, and I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s something that just makes a new game, I mean it challenges how we look at things.

I reviewed Numenera once before as a part of its entry into the Expo awards for 2014, but I only included the basics of what I thought at that time.  As overall head of the awards, I have to maintain a level of neutrality when it came to what I said, just in case it put any sway towards people’s thoughts on the day.

Today, it’s just me...

So the system is broken (unrepentantly so), it’s weighted towards the “Magic” users at the higher levels and it’s got so many pages, they have to plant a new giant redwood every time they print a copy...

What about the product as a whole?

Visually stunning, there’s no question about that, the best authors that money can buy, excellent layout people, careful thought to attention and the understanding that comes from years publishing what people want.  There are many who believe that Ptolus was Monte Cook’s Magnum Opus, those people have not seen Numenera.

It’s important to understand how the character creation is handled, every character is expressed in the following way.

Name is a (Descriptor), (Character Class), who (Focus)

This takes a little explaining.

The Descriptor is the basic nature of the character, whether they are Tough, Charming, Mystical or something else.  This gives the character certain boosts to their skills and attributes as well as giving them a particular set of skills they’re best at and how they link to the other characters in the party.  While not necessary for more experienced players, it makes things a lot easier for beginners to get into the game and forge links that those of us who’ve been doing this for twenty years do on reflex.

The Type is effectively the character class, chosen from one of three, the Nano (Magic User), Glaive (Fighter), and Jack (of all trades).  This will also give the fledgling character a connection to the world, randomly generated or chosen from a list.

The Focus is perhaps the most interesting part of the character creation, wherein the character chooses the thing that makes them unique.  There aren’t that many different things that the character can choose to be, but it’s recommended that no two characters choose the same thing.  The focus is expressed in the form of a verb, so you could have a character that Rides the Lightning or one that Fights with Panache, to one that Bears a Halo of Fire.  In any other system (Other than Rifts), the powers that are granted for beginning characters would cause overbalances that would break most other systems.

As an example, At first level, a character that Rides the Lightning has the ability to shock things.  When the character gets to second level, they can then travel along a bolt of lightning to another place instantly, you must be able to see the location, but no other constraints.

The system makes no apology for the level of power that it places with the characters, and there’s the understanding that the rules, like so many other things, are there only for the times which they are required, not for every single little thing that the characters seek to undertake. 

For this reason, I have a particular degree of empathy with the game and with the people who made it, system ceased to have a lot of meaning for me some time ago, particularly when you’re running lots of convention scenarios and your entire job is to make sure that those players you’re running for are having an excellent time. 

I like to use the systems presented where I possibly can, but I also know that there’s no system in the world that will encompass everything in the face of the magnificent lunacy of some players...

On then to the world, the map included in every book is massive, A1 sized by my reckoning, with dozens of locations marked out on the map and detailed in the book.  There isn’t a single location missed out, and there’s just enough information in the book to get the interest of those wanting to know about it without making it so detailed that you can’t make up something else about it and have it fit in.  A few of the larger and more important locations have more details on them, sometimes a map of a city, sometimes a panoramic shot of the area itself.  Again, from an experienced GM point of view, I could pick it up, see a few spots in it that got my attention (the Great Slab for example), and immediately go in with an idea for an adventure. 

In turn, that brings us to the four adventures in the back of the book.

Only one of these adventures is designed for beginners, but it comes with an instruction guide for beginning GM’s, including how adventures flow, how all points lead towards the conclusion and how to put things back on track.  It won’t replace twenty years of herding cats, but it’s well written and simple to understand.

The Bestiary is not massive, but it presents a good range of creatures from the lower levels to the things that adventurers should live in fear of.  The artwork throughout is spectacular, and while I have a different outlook on how creatures should be presented, I can see that the sheer amount of shiny in this book will certainly prove popular with many.


It’s massive, and while there are other books coming out in the future, all you’ll ever need to play the game for ever is in this first book.  In the days where everything has a players guide, a GM’s guide, and a monster manual separately, that alone is a good thing.  It’s colourful, it’s well written, and the book itself is of a quality I haven’t seen in recent times.

I was one of the playtesters for this, and our group did have issues with the power level, but those issues were looked at, evaluated, and revised.  It’s significantly easier to get into the game with the number of visual references that are now available, but as a player of games that don’t allow this level of freedom (or power), it took a while to get used to the idea of playing a game that starts at this level, and I’m still getting used to that idea.

But I had a blast running it...