Numenera: A Glimpse of the Ninth World

"I am a satisfied backer who enjoys running Numenera."

Its got monoliths.
Given how critical I was about Monte Cook's rules proposals for Dungeons & Dragons Next I am not sure exactly why I backed Numenera. Maybe it was the pitch of a world that exists impossibly far in the future, or maybe it was because he worked on Planescape, one of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings of all time. Maybe I just had a good feeling? At this point, over a year later, I could not tell you.  At any rate I even went so far as to pick a backer level that gave me access to playtest rules, and though I never got a chance to run a game I was surprised at how mostly simple the game was.

From what I can tell aside from extensive portions of flavor material and art, the game has not changed much from playtest to publication (which kind of made things worse because I kept thinking that I was mis-remembering a rule from the playtest packet): characters are built like you are filling out a mad-libs: [name] is a [descriptor] [type] that [focus], there are only three "classes", three stats, six "levels", weapons and armor come in three types, task resolution involves a d20 roll with maybe a small bonus, players always roll the dice, and even spending points from stat pools to modify the difficulty of a task is pretty straightforward once you do it a few times.


Numenera takes place on Earth a billion years in the future that somehow still exists. In that time eight previous "worlds" have come and gone, leaving behind remnants of their existence. While previous worlds were said to have flourished, this one is built upon the ruins of the past, and that is kind of the style of Numenera: discovering the history and wonders of the previous worlds.

While a lot of fantasy settings feature some previous golden age, Numenera is different in that there are at least eight, and that the world is both a product of technology and saturated in it: not only has the ground been process, reshaped, and re-processed, but the very air is filled with countless nanites (which is how nanos use their "magic").

Thankfully there are several chapters that give you an overview of the Ninth World and its people, about one-hundred pages of a closer look at one region of the world, adventure writing, advice on running the game, ways to shake up the overall feel of the Ninth World to better suit your preferences and style (including my personal favorite, weird horror), and dealing with technological types (nanotech, machines, genetics, etc).

If you still need some help or inspiration, page 402 has a list of nonfiction, fiction, and movies--including Adventure Time, The Fifth Element, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind--to get you going.

Let us talk task resolution. As I said above in this game players always roll the dice, and it is always a d20: whenever you want to try something the GM assigns a Task Difficulty (TD) from 0 (automatic success) to 10 (impossible in almost every instance), which you multiply by three to get your Target Number (TN), and try to meet or beat that on a roll. So if you try to bash open a wooden door (TD 2), then you have to roll a 6+ in order to succeed. There are a variety of ways to gain a bonus/reduce the TD, such as by spending points from your stat pools (I will get to this in a bit), skill training/specialization, and/or devices.

This is how everything in the game works, whether you are trying to talk down the price of some supplies, sneak past someone, discern what a numenera can do, climb the fallen crystals in the Cloudcrystal Skyfields, dive out of the way of a callerail's crushing fist, outrun a raging jirasker, skewer a broken hound with your spear, and so on. I like it because it is simple, straightforward, consistent, and I think players will like getting to manage their stat pools as they try to figure out how much they want to hedge their bets.

While initally I was put off by the whole "pick a number, times it by three, and roll against that number" model, when you interact with people, creatures, and devices their level sets the base TD, hit points, and damage, so in the long run it is probably simpler than using a 1-30 range for level and trying to work out hit points and damage backwards from that.

One last thing are special rolls, which are kind of like critical fumbles and hits from Dungeons & Dragons mixed with Dungeon World's miss and 10+ move results: when you roll a natural 1 the GM can intrude in some way, while a natural 17+ lets you trigger minor or major benefits. One of the most common benefits is a scaling damage bonus, but some focuses can let you do other things, like make an extra attack on a nat 20, and there are also plenty of examples for intrusions and minor/major effects scattered throughout the book in relevant sections (most notably monster entries).

There are three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. By themselves they do not determine how hard something is, but instead you spend points from them to make a task easier. So if you are trying to hit a monster, force open a door, jump across a pit, or climb a cliff you can spend points from Might to reduce the Task Difficulty: one point gives you a +1, two points gives you a +2, and three points just reduces the TD by 1. You can reduce the TD by an amount equal to your Effort.

Each stat also has a corresponding Edge value, and when you spend points from that pool the cost is reduced by your Edge. Yes, this can reduce it to zero, meaning that glaives can constantly use their +1 damage maneuver, and nanos can blast people with lightning at will.

You recover spent points by resting for a variable period of time. The first one just takes an action (think second wind from 4th Edition), but each subsequent recovery takes longer: 10 minutes, one hour, then finally ten hours. How many points you regain depends on your tier--1d6 + 1 per tier--so the higher your tier the more you get back. There is also a damage track that is based on how many stat pools are at 0: if one is depleted then it is harder to apply Effort, if two are depleted then you can barely crawl, and once all three run out you are dead.

"_________________ is a __________ _________ who __________________________."

Creating a character is essentially a matter of filling in three blanks, and once you do it a few times will probably take about 5-15 minutes depending on what you pick.

The three types are glaive, nano, and jack, which are analogous to fighter, wizard, and rogue respectively. Each type determines your base stats and Edge rating, gives you a handful of abilities, choices of gear, and a choice of two things from a list of five or so abilities. Most of the starting abilities cost 1 point, if they cost anything at all, which is offset by your Edge. This means that glaives can choose to daze an enemy, deal +1 damage, or add a +1 to their attack roll without draining Might, but they can also choose to add all of it together at the cost of only 2 Might points.

Your descriptor gives you a set of benefits like a bonus to one of your stats, one or more skills, a contact, the ability detect "magic", a bonus to Armor, etc. Interestingly some can also penalize you with an inability, increasing the TD in certain situations, like when you are trying to focus or talk to people. Each of them also comes with four sample links to get you in the starting adventure.

Finally, focuses give you additional abilities on top of what your type does. These range in complexity from a nice weapon and small damage bonus, to transforming you into a horrifying monster during a full moon. Each comes with some minor and major effect suggestions, as well as a sample connection to tie you with another character.

Skills remind me 13th Age (and how they unfortunately used to work in Next) in that they are not tied to any one stat, and the player makes a case as to whether it applies to the current situation. If it does you reduce the Task Difficulty by one (which in turn reduces the Target Number by three). If you are specialized, you instead reduce the TD by two. You cannot get any better than specialized, but you can still spend stat points and/or use other assets to make something even easier.


Weapons and armor have static damage and armor values based on whether it is light, medium, or heavy (think the 4th Edition-esque Gamma World). This is nice because you have more descriptive control of what you are wielding and wearing, instead of having to worry about specifics or optimization.

Light weapons make it easier to hit something, but otherwise the only difference is damage. Armor reduces the damage from most attacks, and while anyone can wear any armor it drains your Might pool and reduces your Speed maximum (thankfully glaives and jacks have built in features that reduce these).

You also start with a number of random devices called cyphers and oddities. Cyphers are typically one-use devices, while oddities are just random trinkets that have no mechanical impact. Each type has its own table, and while I guess you could pick what you want I find it more interesting to give players items not necessarily suited for their characters and see what they can come up with.

Where some RPGs like to heap on the XP, Numenera is one of "those" games that keeps things to a minimum as well astreating them like Fate Points. Gaining XP can happen in a variety of ways, such as discoveries and other events, but one of the more common suppliers is GM intrusion. This is when the GM tries to mess with the character in some way. You can do this whenever, but you have to give the player 2 XP for her troubles (one of which she must give to another player).

So what can you do with it? Well for starters you can burn a point to refuse an intrusion. You can also spend a point to reroll a check for anyone, even another character. Two points gets you a limited training in a skill, like being able to pick locks in one area of a city, or mountain-climbing in a specific mountain range. The upside is that you can gain these skills at any time at half the cost it would take to gain full training in a skill. There are a variety of options for the three-point package, from a +1 to a skill, a useful contact, cash, or even an artifact.

Finally the most expensive use for XP is the best: character advancement. Each time you spend four XP you get to improve your stats, increase one of your Edges or your Effort by 1, or become trained in a skill (or specialized in a skill that you are trained in). You can buy only one of these per tier, and once you have them all you advance to the next tier (so basically each level costs 16 XP). There are also some special options that you can nab once, like reducing the cost for wearing armor, or buying a new ability based on your class.

For those that like homebrewing content or hacking games, there is an entire chapter on optional rules, like reducing your damage for an effect (such as tripping or disarming), adding in last/permanent damage, giving weapons damage types, using minis (normally the game uses variable band ranges), guidelines for customizing types and focuses, other races (that unfortunately are still humanoid), and mutations that range from beneficial to merely cosmetic.

Before I get into the bad part--because there is a bad part, but it thankfully has nothing to do with the setting or rules--I really enjoyed what I have read and what little bit we got to play. The art is mostly good, and the pdf has links in the sidebar for when one section references another (making it easier to navigate, and one of the few pdf products that I do not mind viewing on a computer). The game is very simple to learn and runs fast, but gives enough meaningful choices that even a party of glaives could have plenty of diversity. Not only that, but between all the advice and optional rules it should be able to easily cater to a variety of group tastes.

Again, to be absolutely clear, I really like this game. The rules and presentation are great, and the only time where the game seemed to drag was...

I did not get far into The Beale of Boregal before I wanted to scrap the whole thing and just make it up as I went along. My players encouraged me to try and at least use part of the adventure and tweak it so that it could work, and try I did. Try being the key word here, and ultimately the experience was a combination of frustrating, confusion, and boredom, and since misery loves company let me recount the events as best as I can recall them for you, the reader:

The adventure starts out with the characters walking along a road called the Wandering Walk. The length of it is unknown, but due to terrain and bandits it is too dangerous and unreliable to be useful as a trade road. Even so people still walk it for religious or spiritual reasons, or just a lapse of judgement. They call themselves Peregrines and scar their hands and arms to show off how long they have been walking (because self-mutilation is both reasonable and reliable). It mentions that the "rewards are few", but does not actually specify any, and so for the life of me I cannot figure out why anyone would spend so much time wandering on a dangerous, never-ending road.

I guess sometimes you just gotta Walk Hard.
That bit of flavor is bad, but a lot of adventures suffer from this sort of thing so I could forgive it if the rest of the adventure was entertaining, but things got worse as soon as I hit the read aloud text. As a courtesy I am not going to reprint it in its entirely, but will merely subject you to a choice tidbit that really made me cringe:

"...My mother saw it with her own eyes, says another, younger man, who points at a woman sleeping along the edge of the hollow and then makes the circle of augmentation with his fingers. She has mech eyes, and trust me, she sees everything. There is nervous laughter from the group. Most everyone has a mother, after all, and remembers her impossible eyesight, augmented or not."

That is taken directly from the book. My first complaint is that there are no quotation marks to call out dialogue, it is just italicized. My second, greater complaint is the quality of writing, particularly the last line, "Most everyone has a mother, after all, and remembers her impossible eyesight, augmented or not". I have literally never head anyone refer to their mother's eyesight as "impossible", and honestly when I was a kid my friends and I were able to get away with all sorts of things.

Anyway, a boy and girl ride up on a giant centipede. The boy explains that his family is being attacked by pallones (flying light disks), and that he is riding to find help. Oh, and his sister needs protection, though he will not say from what...except that a paragraph down it says that he will divulge it to one character, and one only. The reason is that he is very protective of her secrets, so of course is willing to spill it to a complete stranger with no guarantee that he will not just tell everyone else.

To recap the plot summary so far is that the players are asked by a complete stranger to escort his sister somewhere else for reasons that may not be clearly divulged (except to one person), so he can go back and help his family despite the reason for leaving them was to find help in the first place. But wait, it gets better: the forest where his family lives is about thirty miles away, and that is if you venture off the road and head straight there.

We did not get much further into the adventure before it was time to pack it in. I had them fight off a group of pallones that I decided had followed her just so we could see the actual mechanics in play (which again are a lot of fun). As of this post I am working on my own intro adventure. Given years of playing Dungeons & Dragons and similar games it will an interesting exercise for me to see how I handle the material.


  1. I was super excited about this game when I first heard about Numenara.

    Unfortunately, that was only last week -- well beyond the timeframe to be able to back the Kickstarter to get a copy.

    So now I am forced to wait until Wednesday when the book goes on sale officially and I can run to my local hobby shop and hope they have a copy. Fingers crossed on that one, though I'm not holding my breath.

    Frankly, the setting seems to be the best part to me. Ultra-futuristic, to the point of falling back into the past (so to speak), but with a flavor that is undeniable. It actually reminds me a lot of the upcoming video game Destiny, in more than one way.

    I'm eager to get my hands on a copy, even if it's just the PDF. The artwork and everything about it just scream 'Yes' to me. Colour me jealous that you actually have a copy. ;)

  2. I found the bit that made you cringe evocative, if maybe a bit exaggerated. At least once, I've felt like my parents saw through my bs. I don't think that's a rare feeling.

    However, what made me smile are the bits that collide with science:
    "Lattimors are strong creatures with keen senses. They breathe nitrogen but need only a small amount, so they can hold their breath for up to ten minutes without issue." implies that nitrogen is somehow rare. Now, the setting is at least a billion years (you say 8, I recall less, but whatever) in the future, but a change in the atmosphere that replaced 78% of it (nitrogen is the major component in air) would be really something.

    Also, it's been billions of years. Plenty of time for humans to actually evolve and become something else, especially over 9 different past 'worlds'. Abhumans should actually be the norm!

  3. Ah. I had not yet read the chapters where the Setting is described.

  4. @Nick: I just have the pdf, too. Still waiting on the book to come in the mail (but since it is the leather one, I will get getting a normal book for routine table use). The world is nice, maybe not as much high-tech stuff as I expected, but the rules are also great: we were able to take time looking at character options, create them, and learn while playing within about an hour.

    @Moranar: Even ignoring that, the rest of the adventure was...bleh. There is a section on rolling up mutations (ranging from actually beneficial to cosmetic), which was nice because I do not think that most everyone should look human (or mostly so).

  5. Moránar, while a billion years would indeed evolve humans to an unrecognizable state, the backstory for the setting states that humans actually evolved AWAY, as in GONE, don't exist anymore, replaced by sentient machines and aliens.

    The humans we meet in this game are *new* to the world, and no one knows how they arrived, and they resemble us. It's one of the mysteries: we shouldn't exist there, yet we do. We should know how we got there, yet we don't.

  6. @Moranar: You are right in that it is only a billion years. I put eight, possibly because of the "eight worlds before this one", but probably because there was a bunch of talk about when Monte Cook was pitching it that the sun would be gone, or have destroyed the Earth, or some such (either of which would take longer than "only" a billion years).

    1. @David Guyll

      Actually, it's because the sun's luminosity would've increased to the point that it is too hot for liquid water to form, thus making life impossible. IIRC, that would happen in a billion years according to scientists.

  7. Finally got a copy of this and, having read through it, I have some mixed emotions about it all. The setting, while cool, is actually somewhat... underwhelming? I'm not sure if that's the right way to put it but there's something missing from it that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe I'm used to more conventional settings so the hybrid sci-fi/fantasy thing just isn't my cup of tea but there's something in there that lacks a hook for me. I have an easy time thinking up scenarios and adventures to run for fantasy games, sci-fi games, and everything in between, but my imagination would just not run away with the concept, no matter how hard I tried.

    The character creation, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant. It's so simple yet satisfying, and the conflict resolution is beautifully streamlined. There's a lot of merits in the system -- the static "level" difficulties for enemies, for example -- but it's the setting that lets it all down, I feel. (This probably has some part to play in why the Beale of Boregal adventure sounds so ludicrous when reading through it.)

    I'm actually tempted to take the system and use it with a different setting. All of the stuff for Numenera has been very evocative of the stuff we have seen in the Halo video game universe, or even the upcoming game Destiny, and I think this system would work very well for the latter. Exploring ancient worlds that humans or aliens used to inhabit, discovering relics and, ultimately, yearning for a measure of peace in the universe? Same basic themes, just a different application.

    I'd be interested to hear what your other experiences with the game have been like! Have you managed to try it out again since the first playtest?

  8. I found the setting--none the overall setting concept, but the stuff from Chapter 11-13 --to be a bit underwhelming, too. None of it really inspired me, but...meh, I tend to build my own settings anyway.

    I really love the system: it is simple, and unlike D&D Next and most older editions you are still able to make meaningful choices. On that note, I pitched the idea to my players of running Age of Worms using Numenera (including, as an added challenge, transplanting it into the Ninth World).

    Once we are down with Epiro it is one of the games on the docket to play next. Either that or 13th Age.

  9. I am a little late to this post, but I just came across your blog and wanted to comment.

    Thanks for the review! I was very curious about the system, but hesitant to invest in it.

    For the record, and anyone who thinks the setting is underwhelming, I strongly recommend reading at least the first two books of The Book of the New Urth, by Gene Wolfe; Numenaria is, frankly, if not a rip-off, a direct homage to the New Urth setting, which does a fantastic job of instilling you with a sense of strangeness and wonder for this ancient, bizarre, bizarre world.

  10. Thanks for the review. I am coming to it a little late I guess, but I found it very helpful as I was super interested in the game but hesitant without knowing much about the system!

    For those who are underwhelmed by the setting, honestly, I would strongly recommend at least the first two books of The Book of the New Sun (Shadow & Claw) by Gene Wolfe; really Numenaria is directly insprired by the Urth of the New Sun, which does a fantastic job of instilling a sense of strangeness and wonder in a very old, old earth.

  11. Also late to the post.

    I agree that the Beale of Boregale is crazy underwhelming - the thing that most annoyed me was that it's pitched as an introductory adventure, but takes no account of the "links to initial adventure" that players are game mechanically mandated to give their characters. In fact, it pointedly requires you to *ignore* your initial hook in favour of "now you want to escort this random woman for no reason, even though she is clearly horribly dangerous"

  12. @Brian: And I am super late to the reply! I just got through reading a bunch of Dying Earth for a current project, and we are pretty much done with Numenera, but I might check out the book anyway for inspiration.

    @Dan H: Yeah, it was bad just all around. Like, 4th Edition D&D adventure bad. I would not recommend the game for the setting and adventures, but the system works if you are looking for something pretty simple.


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