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Minireview: Numenéra

Monte Cook’s Numenéra is an interesting beast, a science-fantasy rpg from a designer known for intricate game rules and campaign settings. Surprisingly enough, the rules this time are extremely light-weight and try to minimize dice throwing; damage has constant values and in general, much of the ruleset is narrative-driven. It’s very “indie” in feel… and I say this as a compliment. At times the ruleset feels almost too streamlined, but without playtesting I find it impossible to say anything very concrete. It feels like it could work very nicely, but since it’s not based on any existing ruleset it’s hard to extrapolate.

The game itself is set in the Ninth World, a far-future Earth so distant from our time that we are not even mythology anymore. Over the millennia, mankind has (presumably) gone to the stars, perhaps returned again many times, discovered technology so advanced it is quite indistinguishable from magic, lost said technology… the list goes on. The past is an unknown, since the “current” inhabitants only say that their age is the “ninth”. Ninth what? Empire? Time between extinction events? Unknown (and of course up to the GM). It’s much like Gene Wolfe’s “The New Sun” books, a future so distant that it is like fantasy to us.

This, of course, is a storytelling device for creating an anything-goes game world. “Magic” exists, in the form of ridiculously advanced tech, which the current users can only barely use (and often use wrong). The basic technology level in the default setting is low(ish) and the societies fairly primitive, but of course there are more advanced enclaves. The inhabitants find old bits of tech, “cyphers”, here and there, and PCs can use them as “magic items” – though most of the time, they are only single-use or very limited-use. Various races exist, some of them very possibly “alien” in the “space alien” sense – but even they themselves no longer know for certain. They may “just” be results of genetic manipulation, or something even stranger. In the end, it does not really matter, unless the GM decides to make it a plot and important to the story.

Into this far-future landscape enter the PCs, as representatives of the three presented character classes (yes, the game has them, something I’m not totally sure it needs). We have “glaives” (fighters), “nanos” (wizards) and “jacks” (everything else, jack-of-all-trades). The stories can be whatever; you can set traditional fantasy “dungeon crawls” here, or something more ambitious. Due to the nature of the setting, a GM can easily justify pretty much anything, since “discover and explore weird ancient tech and secrets” is a fundamental theme.

In general, I liked it quite a bit. It’s a lot more lightweight and narrative rules-wise than I was expecting, and the “mythical future” Earth is a fun setting. The rules I’m undecided on, I’d have to try them out in practice to say whether they work well or not. The only real (tiny!) criticism I have of this book is that much of what is presented is perhaps too close to ordinary fantasy tropes, considering the setting possibilities. This may have been a conscious choice, to help ease in players and GMs used to more traditional stuff, but still, I would have liked to see some more weird, creepy and fantastic elements here. The book does have them, of course, and some are really nice… and of course, adding stuff like that is a good option for expansion books.

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