Numenera Core Book by Monte Cook Games, by Monte Cook with Shanna Germain, &al., was given gratis as part of my support for the The Ninth World: A Skillbuilding Game for Numenera crowdfunding effort (which is almost a whole year late to deliver!).
Multiple times I forgot I had this, rediscovered the PDF and intended to read it, then didn’t; and, rinse and repeat.
Numenera is a billion years in the future post-cataclysmic science fantasy setting, essentially God Emperor of Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The nuts and bolts are the, separately available but not entirely needed to play, Cypher System which is a framework on which other games can be built, such as The Strange, or used for other settings, such as Predation, but notably not Invisible Sun, which is the forthcoming new Monte Cook newness.
Characters in Numenera, and Cypher System, have three stats (might, speed and intellect) and can be described in a simple sentence, “I am an adjective noun who verbs.” In Numenera, examples of this character statement are:
“I am a Rugged glaive who Controls Beasts” or “I am a Charming nano who Focuses Mind over Matter.”
I am amused to no end that there is an adjective noun in Numenera for “Shadow jack” and if you wanted to play something like Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, this would be right on.
Anyhow, if the rules system stopped near there, it could be great, but then things get a bit overwritten and complex.
The Cypher System foundation is touted for its “elegance, flexibility, ease of use, and focus on narrative” but the rules quickly become strangely crunchy with stats and pools and edges and effort and skills and abilities and tiers and so on and on. Without having read the Cypher System Core Book, I gather from Numenera that there’s a lot of room for expansion on the three possible character types, and short list of descriptors. As “elegant” and “flexible” as Cypher System is supposed to be, the types and descriptors are very specific. These aren’t the broad narrative-driving Aspects of Fate or Clichés of Risus, but end up being very explicitly detailed crunchy blocks of text in the rule book, and, moreover, then, by being so crunchy, leave vast swaths of undetailed unknown others by omission. The more crunchy the rules, the more obvious the omissions.
An example of the kind of issue in Numenera which gave me pause was how the three character types, each which have some core element, clearly didn’t explore the full range of possibility. The core stat for a Glaive is Might. The core stat for a Nano is Intellect. But, the Jack starts with flat stat spread. So, what about a character type with Speed for their main stat? What about a type that is built around Effort? What about a type that is built around boosting Pools. And so on. For all the eventual crunchiness heaped onto the simplicity of the character statement, there’s just a wild amount that isn’t covered or explored. It’s a very strange dichotomy. Without having read the core books for Cypher, itself, or The Strange, I wonder if these other directions are explored there for character types, but, the point is, they aren’t in Numenera.
One of the more interesting things for me in Numenera was the focus on the numenera, the bits of recovered future tech, as a core mechanic and motivator. This reminds me of Index Card RPG Core‘s focus on loot as the method of advancement and ability development for characters. Like a game in a setting of Heavy Metal, the scratching out of some ancient nano-magical future tech artifact from the dust and rubble can change everything, then fails or is replaced, and gets tossed away. This provides a kind of Nomic or Fluxx-like game of self-amendment, constantly changing the rules of the game itself by introducing more or less awesome MacGuffin after MacGuffin.
The world building is Silmarillion-level and seems like the writer’s bible to a series of novels, in that it is excessive and clearly thought out even farther than detailed, a full encyclopedia of future history and hints at a forthcoming piecemeal conveyor belt principia.
The core book also contains the short story The Amber Monolith by Shanna Germain, which is available separately. I ended up reading it separately before getting around to the core rule book, and it makes more sense to read it in context.
The art and world are lush, but it all seems like something one collects and reads, not so much plays and develops stories within. I have no doubt that this ticks the bits of brain that drive collectable card game fanatics and the like, but the simplicity and elegance seems to me to get lost for what should be a framework open and welcoming to players at the table.
There are parts that seem fantastic to me, but also there’s some things missing in all the complexity. In the end, I find myself wishing to play in the world of Numenera, but with different rules, such as Index Card RPG or Risus, or, hell, even Toon or Amber, to free up the narrative gameplay from the gaming system.