Numenera 2: Time to Give Weird a Second Chance?

The Numenera 2 Kickstarter just launchedIt has me thinking about my gaming groups’ own experiences with Numenera, why we stopped playing it, and how Numenera 2 might get us playing again.

A few years ago I backed the Numenera kickstarter and, as my core rule book arrived, I was excited to try out this science fantasy game set in a ruined, weird world a few billion years in the future.

We ran a few playtest games with my regular gaming group, and I ran a couple of sessions with my lunchtime game …. and my enthusiasm dimmed. It turned out that I liked the idea of Numenera a lot more than the execution of Numenera. Looking back, there were two problems: 1) Lack of context 2) Lack of agency.

Lack of Context

Numenera prided itself on being weird, but — at least for me — it was too weird. With a billion years of history incorporating multiple doomed civilizations, the world of Numenera was utterly divorced from our own. Everything about it was arbitrary, with little that let the players (or the game master) draw concrete conclusions about the game world … except that there were no concrete conclusions about the game world.

That flowering plant that you just brushed up against? It could be a hyperintellgent plant form that bleeds poison, spits metal spires, and wants to eat your brain. Or … it could just be a plant.  The billion year old “door” before could be opened in dozens of different ways, none of which are easily discoverable through play. And even if you did open it, it’s even money that it goes to the next room or the stomach of a beached space whale.

This isn’t inherently bad as it opens up all kinds of creative adventure ideas. The problem we found though, was that none of this was anchored in ways that people could get their heads around.  Players were constantly interacting with the wreckage of history, but — at least when we were playing it — the game didn’t try to foster understanding of what they were dealing with. It was supposed to be weird, and with that weirdness came an inherent lack of understanding.

It would have been far better if the game had retained the weird, but added some structure. Alistair Reynold’s Revenger did an excellent job of this. Like Numenera it’s set in a future in which multiple civilizations have risen and fallen. It’s set in a distant solar system, and humanity is only the most recent of these civilizations. Its people eek out an existence on hundreds of artificial worlds, and an enterprising few excavate lost technology from time-lost worlds that become “unlocked” a predictable intervals. The book called out the different nature of each of the civilizations that came before, which allowed the characters (and the reader) to build up a basic understanding of the nature of each era.

It would have been great too see this in Numenera. Having certain technologies tied to certain ages (e.g. the 8th Age is all about biotech and sentient coral, the 7th Age is force fields, the 6th Age is mentalism, etc.) would have fostered a sense of understanding through discovery.

At the same time, the larger story of Numenera was lacking. I have not read the complete core rule book nor all the supplements that came out afterward, but what I did read was focused on introducing as many weird story ideas per cubic kilometer as possible. There was little to unify them; the game lacked something like the Cryptic Alliances of Gamma World, which would have allowed the heroes to interact with factions with wildly different philosophies. That in turn would help them establish themselves in the world.  Instead, the heroes were wanderers, going from one outpost of the strange to the next, with little to no hope of understanding the world around them.

All of this was compounded by our lack of reference points. When playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, we have dozens of film, TV, and book examples to fall back on. The quest to destroy the One Ring in The Fellowship of the Ring. The snake cult in Conan the Barbarian. The cursed love story of Lady Hawk. The endless rebirth of heroism and villainy in The Wheel of Time. The goblinoid caverns of The Hobbit. All of these serve as examples that players and game masters can either point to, or take inspiration from, when playing through their stories.

There are far fewer reference points for Numenera’s brand of weird, and where we do have them, they tend focus on one particular element of a transhuman or post-human world. In the movie OblivionEarth is wiped out by aliens and Tom Cruise’s character “Tech-49” Jack Harper is tasked with maintaining energy-generating stations on Earth that power humanity’s surviving colony on Titan. After Earth features a transformed Terra that’s filled with lethal fauna and flora. Arrival depicts humanity’s first contact with with an alien species that whose thought processes are utterly different from our own. Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey novels and related films introduce us to the galaxy-spanning, gas giant transforming technology of the Monolith. The Matrix gives us a cyberpunk future in which the humanity’s caught in an endless and destructive loop. Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse gives us a world where identity and self are constantly in flux.

Numenera includes aspects of each of these, but without the metaplot to bring it all together and provide context to the players. Player and game master awareness of these reference points is limited; I can count on people having seen The Matrix but it’s unlikely that most (or even some) of the people at the table have seen Oblivion or Dollhouse.

Lack of Agency

The lack of context killed Numenera for my Sunday gaming group. Lack of agency killed it for my lunchtime group. Out of the box, Numenera seemed designed as an amusement ride. You got on and went where the game took you. Yes, you could explore the Ninth World, and yes, you could improve your character’s capabilities by surviving in it, but changing that world was difficult.

Technology was the perfect example of this. The game’s basic premise was that its technology was unknowable. You could jury-rig a device by duct taping two or three bits of technology together, but it’d only last for a use or three. Moreover, the act of creating this ad hoc device taught you nothing about the technology itself.  There was no way player characters to achieve the sort of deeper understanding of a particular technology — say the coral-based biotech of the hypothetical Eighth Age — to grow your own set of semi-sentient battle armor.

This was very much about design; Numenera prided itself on being about discovery, but not on invention. It specifically ruled out the possibility of achieving a deeper understanding of the world, explaining that it was just too weird — with too many technological inconsistencies — to that to be possible.

For the engineer in our group, this was infuriating. There had to be, he insisted, a way to build this tech. Surely it must be possible to achieve some sort of understanding of the basic principles involved in a particular family of tech, and use that to improve it. The answer that science = magic was not satisfying to someone who knew better.

Second Chances

After six months of playtesting with the two groups, I put Numenera back on the shelf and moved onto other games. Both groups settled on playing the very familiar (but also very good) Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. That said, Numenera — despite its flaws —  is still a system I’m interested in.

Enter Numenera 2, a new iteration of the game that appears to address some of my concerns. The game is formally called Numnera 2: Discovery and Destiny and its meant to evolve the game without the complete rules overall associated with a true second edition. It consists of two books: Discovery and Destiny. 

Discovery is the rule book. The core rules engine remains the same — they explicitly state that your old Numenera characters as well as the prior source books can live alongside Numenera 2 — but there will be more and better options for player characters.

Destiny is looks to be a sort of campaign cookbook, and it gets to the heart of my complaints about the game. From the Numenera 2 Kickstarter page:

The people of the Ninth World are locked in a medieval-like state, a world of struggle and danger and often suffering in the shadow of the prior worlds’ wonders. Numenera Destiny allows you to build adventures and campaigns in which players don’t just explore the wonders of the past—they utilize them to help lift the Ninth World out of darkness.

You can make the world a better place. Help a community defend itself from abhumans or the iron wind. Create centers of learning or trade. Innovate, build, and protect. Manage an entire community and help it prosper and grow—or simply create a cool base or vehicle for your adventuring group. Numenera Destiny will allow you to take what you discover and make your mark on history as someone who elevated the Ninth World into the future.

Adventuring—exploring the weird and wondrous remnants of the prior worlds—remains, of course, at the core of Numenera play. Numenera Destiny will give you new things to do with your discoveries, along with entirely new and epic ways to structure your campaigns. You’ll discover materials, power sources, and treasures that you can utilize in an entirely new, robust crafting and building system.

This is awesome and it gets to the heart of my many difficulties with the first book. The lack of context remains an issue, but knowing what I know now, I think I could work around it. Just having the ability to create new things would help with that. If I have rules for creating new things, then I suspect I could also use them to describe the old things more consistently.

Revisiting the source material, I could establish the sort of connections I’m looking for (or perhaps find the ones I overlooked). The single most exciting thing, however, is the idea of running a campaign where the end goal is smashing the status quo and working toward a new, better Tenth Age. That’s the sort of game I want to play, and I want to play it enough that I just might back the kickstarter.

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