Thursday, 8 September 2016

We play Numenera

Following on from my last post, the second game I played at BURPS Reunicon was Numenera, by Monte Cook Games. Numenera is another post-apocalyptic game, but you could also describe it as science fantasy. Its intriguing premise is that the characters are living in the earth's far future, but that much of the technology of the past ages has been lost to them.

I was initially a little sceptical about Numenera, in so far as it only has three character classes, namely nanos, glaives and jacks. I played a glaive in this game, called Hawmett. A glaive is a combat-focused character, while jacks are all-rounders, and nanos seem to have some form of psionic capability and are probably the most familiar with the 'numenera' of the game's title, which seems to be the way ancient technology has changed the world, and continues to change the world.

Our party consisted of two glaives, Satha and Hawmett, a jack called Sados, and a nano called Perem. We entered a small village that had been built around the Shadewalker, a massive artefact from an earlier age that seemingly had the capability to actually get up and move a few hundred metres every few years. The village was very much a trading locale for people and settlements from miles around, but other than serving as a point at which to congregate, the Shadewalker did not seem to serve any particular role for the village.

Numenera uses a d20 mechanic, but has a highly streamlined system. Characters use a pool of only three attributes - Might, Speed and Intellect - which control many aspects of their actions, as well as measuring damage. There are no hit points. Damage is tracked against your attributes, and as each pool is reduced to zero, characters can become Impaired or Debilitated.

Recovery is cunningly contrived: like in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Iron Heroes, characters have recovery actions: there are four, which you need to use in strict succession. Each takes longer than the previous one, with the last requiring 10 hours of recovery time. What this simulates is the increasing exhaustion a character might experience, until ultimately they are left with no option but to take a full 10 hours of rest. I really like this mechanic in particular, as characters can become debilitated and require help from their comrades; it feels a lot more realistic than hit points.

Another aspect I liked was cyphers: this is how the characters make use of the technology they find. Frequently, this technology may be used for something other than its original intention. Most of it is one use only, although there are some items than can be used repetitively. Technology jumps into the role of magic items in a fantasy game, but it does not quite feel like magic in the medieval sense. The game does seem to achieve the seamless interaction between a primitive society with advanced technology very effectively. I applaud this.

Returning to the plot, the Shadewalker suddenly decided to stand up and fly off, leaving the hapless villagers to turn to the adventurers and ask them to track the Shadewalker for them. Luckily, the machine was stopping occasionally to land, allowing us to track it effectively. After encountering a local trapper, who warned us about some of the hostile fauna in the area, we scaled a rocky escarpment to finally discover the Shadewalker at rest.

XP in this game can be used to advance your character or re-roll dice. You may be familiar with this if you have experienced 'bennies' in Savage Worlds. GMs can offer characters more XP to allow bad things to happen to them (I also assume that players can suggest that bad things happen to them, in return for XP). In this case, I was offered XP if my character fell down the cliff - luckily he was dexterous enough to avoid major damage, but the risk was there.

As the sun was going down, we encountered a camp of humanoids between us and our objective, but decided to assault it under cover of darkness. These creatures turned out to look very similar to Broo from RuneQuest (or Chaos Beastmen from WFRP if you prefer).

The combat system works very well indeed - as with 13th Age, damage rates are fixed, so there is no pause to roll for damage. In addition, NPCs don't roll to attack characters, characters dodge attacks made against them instead. Players do all the rolling. The GM does not actually seem to roll any dice. This works very well in practice, and means battles can progress smoothly.

Following our victory over the 'Broo', we discovered that the Shadewalker was up to something - it looked like it was drilling into the ground, and was now protected by a trio of mini Shadewalkers that were patrolling around the larger entity like huge crabs. Our approach, however, led us into an area of undergrowth that quickly made us feel unwell - with no obvious source for this effect, although we suspected some kind of vegetation - so we withdrew. Instead, we tried another approach through a wooded escarpment, where we encountered some kind of snake like creature with loads of tentacles.

Glaive, Jack and Nano

In this second battle, Perem, our nano, spectacularly rolled two 1s on his dodge roll, and was impaled by two tentacles and hoisted aloft. Luckily for him, the rest of the party piled in and quickly slew the monster. Perem was able to use his first couple of recovery slots (one action, followed by 10 minutes), to rest and recuperate, before we proceeded.

Our final approach to the Shadewalker was a bit more tactical: Perem had set up a telepathic link with Sados, allowing the jack to sneak around behind the Shadewalker while we distracted the guards from a different direction. Sadly, despite our best efforts, one guard detected Sados' approach, and we were forced to attack. The original plan was for Sados to jump up onto the Shadewalker and burn through its carapace using some solvent we'd found (another cypher). As it turned out, the mini walkers were almost too tough for our weapons, and Hawmett and Sados were forced to use our solvent on the guards, destroying two, but using up all the solvent. The third guard was finally destroyed, as it was forced to take on the entire party alone, and Satha was using an extremely dangerous staff sword, that seemed to demolish anything she came up against. Perrem, however, had rolled two critical failures in the fight, hitting Satha once, and then suffering a backblast from his own power, which knocked him senseless.

Huzzah! Victory. Climbing onto the Shadewalker, our knowledge of numenera led us to discover that it was mining ore to build more guards. We were able to figure out how to shut it down, and wait for the arrival of the migrating village. We also realised that our knowledge of the machine might allow us to barter for a larger reward than the villagers had previously offered us!

In the final analysis I must say I feel very positive about Numenera. It is a slick system, and while this was just a taster session, I did not feel that weighed down by learning the mechanics and the background. It still retains a degree of post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but where technology became so advanced before the Fall, its capabilities are scarily impressive.


  1. Now all we need to do is get Ben to run it!

  2. Ack! Fair point! Christmas? WinterStuCon?

  3. Very pleased you liked it since I have invested heavily in it. A few more books and card decks arrive very soon. Plus the Cypher System gives you a fourth class - the speaker/ leader.