What Do I Know About First Impressions? Numenera Discovery and Destiny Slipcase Edition
This is going to be a first impressions article, because I have not managed to make the time to read both of these books cover to cover, but I did want to address what I have seen so far, and very particularly, what the physical slipcase edition has included with it. As a full disclaimer, I have most of the Numenera products in at least PDF format, and while I have run Cypher games before, I have yet to run a Numenera game. I have been a player.
If you aren’t familiar with Numenera, it is set a million years in the future. That’s shorthand for “far enough in the future that a lot of the things you assume are no longer a thing.” There were multiple eras that the Earth has survived, and for a while, humans didn’t exist on the planet.
Almost all living things are infused with nanites from previous civilizations, and there is a massive, all present super future version of the Internet that exists and functions, but like most of the other technologies left in this era, it’s not something that can be reliably interfaced with. People learn to use one shot pieces of technology (cyphers) or ongoing functional pieces of technology (artifacts), but don’t fully understand how they function, or what they were originally meant to do.
Some people end up developing extraordinary abilities by tapping into the Infosphere or activating their nanites, and these abilities may grow or become more reliable over time, but it never fully reaches the level of full understanding. Most people in the setting will cobble together melee weapons, bows, and armor, but some more dedicated people will put together multiple pieces of ancient technology to produce ongoing effects.
My History With the Setting
One of the things that was daunting to me is that there is so much going on in the setting. The setting itself fascinated me, but there wasn’t one default “story” for who adventurers are in the setting, or even a constrained list of assumed adventurers. The original rulebook also spent a lot of time comparing itself against the prevailing model of Dungeons and Dragons at the time, saying that the game wasn’t about killing monsters or getting rich, but was about exploring and experiencing wonders.
That said, it spent a fair bit of time detailing what combat would look like, and even gaining more cyphers or artifacts felt like getting rich. I was afraid with those disclaimers in place, I would be “doing it wrong” if I leaned too heavily on combat or acquisition, even if that was the direction the players took the game.
Additionally, a lot of space was dedicated to the existing settlements in the Steadfast, a region that is more heavily populated with existing nations with various political interactions. There were governments, organizations, and ongoing plots related to the less established people living in The Beyond. That also made me wonder if I was expected to interact with existing civilization as much or more than wandering in the wilderness finding new wonders.
So, while the setting was fascinating to me, and I kept having the urge to pick up new books and look at new aspects of the setting, as a gaming product line, I was having a hard time determining what should have more “weight” when engaging with the setting itself.
Emerging Product Lines
As more products came out, there were more vectors for entering the setting. Books came out that focused on exploring other dimensions, space, and the oceans, as well as a supplement that detailed various established ruins and randomly generating ruins from the past and the weirdness that could be found there. There was even a specific region guide for emulating an experience that approximated the adventures found in the Torment: Tides of Numenera video game.
All of this gave me some insight into how to cut off a piece of the setting and use that as a lens for interacting with the material, but all of that was supplemental.
The new core rulebooks for Numenera came out a few years into the game’s lifespan. Instead of having a single core rulebook, the new core rulebooks would be Numenera Discovery and Numenera Destiny. With this relaunch came a slight change of focus.
The rules were broadly intended to work the same as the original core rulebook, to ensure broad compatibility. Taken together, the rules would add in more details for crafting, new character types, slightly different explanations for how assets work in the game, and new rules for Player Intrusions to supplement GM Intrusions.
The Core System
The core system of Numenera is actually rather simple, but the filters that that simplicity goes through on the player end creates more complexity. Everything is resolved with a d20 roll against a target number. The level of the challenge x3 provides the difficulty, with challenges ranging from 0 to 10, yielding difficulties from 0 to 30. You generally don’t add any bonuses to the d20.
How do you get a 30, then? You don’t, but different assets, skills, and abilities will lower the difficulty of the roll. For example, when you have a skill, the level of the challenge goes down by one. When you have an asset that helps, the difficulty goes down more. Players also have three pools, Speed, Might, and Intellect, that they can spend from to lower the difficulty.
The granularity of the player side comes from how you can spend those points, and what spending those points does. Players construct their character by picking a type, descriptor, and focus. These choices affect the size of your pools, how much you can spend to lower difficulties, what your skills are, and also gives you special abilities that can be triggered when you spend from your pools (like being able to fly, teleport, shoot energy beams, or summon answers from the Infosphere).
All rolls are player facing, so when an enemy attacks, the player defends, and when a player attacks, they roll against the difficulty of the opponents level. This also means that NPCs, creatures, and hazards aren’t built using the same rules as the player characters. Player characters become hindered or injured by expending their pools (which can also be directly damaged), but NPCs have a set pool to determine if they have been removed from a scene, usually by multiplying by their level.
GMs can introduce changes to a scene with a GM Intrusion, paying PCs an XP when they do so. Players can refuse the intrusion by paying an XP that they currently have, but haven’t spent for advancements or rerolls, but if they don’t have any unspent XP, the intrusion is going off as the GM planned.
That’s a way simplified overview of the overall system. In addition, the character’s has different tiers which are vaguely like levels, and those tiers unlock new abilities they can purchase, as well as increase the number of cyphers they can carry. Cyphers are one use items that can produce extraordinary effects, basically because they are bits of semi-functioning technology left over from previous worlds that do something out of context from what they were designed to do, and then burn out.
Discovery and Destiny Changes
Most of the changes in Discovery and Destiny are “overlays” to the original system. There are some new abilities at different tiers that still work with the old or new version of the character types, and Player Intrusions are introduced. These are general effects, somewhat constrained by character type, that players can introduce into a scene by spending XP.
For example, the Glaive, a physically focused character, can spend an intrusion to say that an NPC is an old friend, to say that an opponent’s weapon breaks, or to say that multiple opponents have lined to be attacked with a single action.
Outside of introducing new abilities for the various tiers of characters, the player intrusions, and the changes to the language involving assets or complications, Numenera Discovery is very similar to the original core rulebook, with character creation rules, advancement rules, the core rules for the game, and a broad overview of the setting.
In addition to character rules, core rules, and setting information, there are cyphers, artifacts (multi-use items), creatures, NPCs, and a starting adventure. There is also some information on playing visitants (creatures that live on Earth, but did not originate here) and mutations.
The outer edge of each page is color coded for the chapter, so it’s fairly easy to determine if you have paged to far forward or back if you remember the color code for the chapter you want to be in. Like other Monte Cook Games products, there is a sidebar that runs on the outer edge of the two-column format that refers readers to other parts of the book, or provide tangential information to the text presented.
Numenera Destiny is the wholly new add on to the core rules, which is now part of the “core” experience. In theory, if you already have the core rulebook, and don’t mind missing out on some of the tweaks provided in the updated version, you could use the original core rulebook with destiny.
Destiny includes new character types focused around exploring, building, and interacting with others. There was a previous character option book for Numenera that already provided explorer and interacting types, but these are newly reenvisioned from the ground up, although those character types shouldn’t be a problem to interact with.
In addition to having new character types, Destiny also introduces special abilities that a settlement gains from having a player character of that type in the settlement.
Destiny introduces Salvaging and Crafting rules, which means that characters can explore ruins to find things that can be used specifically to create items for which they have plans. This can be on the small side, like reproducing specific cyphers, to more substantial building, like recreating artifacts, to big efforts, like building specific long term items for a settlement.
Instead of saying that characters need X number of kilograms of this material, and Y amount of this other material, plans call for X number of units of general building material, and then has other types of building material that are named, but also kind of general. You aren’t looking for veins of silver or uranium to refine, you are looking for core material plus adaptive material plus framework material (not using those specific terms) plus time to build [thing].
The book then provides plans for building at multiple levels, stat blocks for creatures and NPCs related to community-level play, and a structure for taking community actions (which having various player character types present might modify).
Essentially, if Numenera Discovery provides the broad strokes of how and where to explore, Numenera Destiny provides the context of why you might want to explore, and how exploring makes the community where you live better over time. Discovery provides the personal progress track, and in many ways, Destiny is providing the campaign progress track.
Numenera Destiny really did feel like the missing piece to the game that I had been looking for when it came to my own angle of approach. I could picture one-shots in the setting, and highly detailed backstories for individuals, but I was missing that feeling of what to do for an extended game of Numenera.
Finding and repurposing bits to build longer lasting tools, that can then be used to help find more bits that can be used to make a community better and more stable, is exactly what I was asking for, without knowing it.
Numenera is essentially a post-apocalyptic setting with a lot of high concept trappings introduced. It’s not a simple, near-future apocalypse. It’s the remnants of eight other highly advanced civilizations mixed together with the borders blurred.
This added that forward momentum that is often missing in post-apocalyptic setting. What do you do other than survive? How do you learn from the past and made the present a place where you want to live.
The previous Numenera products had implied that others had addressed this question, because there are all kinds of cities and nations with stable wonders that help make that civilization possible, but the in-between step from character rules to “wonderous society” was a bit gap.
All of the Monte Cook Games products, from the start, have been gorgeous products with lavish art and impressive formatting. However, the original Numenera leaned towards a lot of orange in its artwork and general colors. In broad strokes, the colors in the new books leans towards a wider pallet, with more blues, greens, and purples.
In addition to the broader color pallet, the actual people introduced show more diversity. There are a wider range of body types represented, and fewer “vaguely European” people, and more people of color, representing the broader representation seen in the ninth world. This isn’t to imply that the artwork in previous products wasn’t inclusive, but that it has become much more inclusive in this iteration of the game.
I can’t explain it, but the pervasive orange felt a little oppressive to me, like no matter what wonders were described in the books, there was a desert just around the corner waiting to wear it all down, so you could only get lost in the wonders for so long before the world would take it all away. While there is still a survival element, both in the general description of the setting and built in to the long term community actions, it doesn’t feel like fighting for the status quo or against the inevitable. The broader colors and representational art feels like the Ninth Age is wide open for the story it’s writing, and that story won’t just be about survival or subsistence. I’m a fan.
Beyond what’s available in the PDFs, the slipcase has some physical items I wanted to mention as well. There is a GM’s Quite Reference card, a Character Creation Walkthrough, and two bookmarks, one coded for each book.
Because most of the complexity is player facing in the game, the GM’s Quick Reference card covers almost everything a GM is going to need to remember on the fly. It’s got what extra effects are triggered for special die rolls (1s, 17, 18, 19, and 20), how much effort is needed to lower the difficulty of a roll, example task difficulties, armor and weapon rules, and abstract distances.
One of my concerns about the Cypher System in general is that while the system is fairly easy to adjudicate, even with a well laid out book, the types, descriptors, and focus are spread out so far in the books that it can be easy to get lost in character creation. The walkthrough helps this problem by providing a step by step example of character creation, with references to the sections of the standard character sheet.
I especially like the book marks, because they have a clever section with headers, topics, and page numbers repeated on them, so that they function as a movable table of contents for the book that matches the artwork and name at the top of the book mark.
I need to spend some more time with these books, because there is a LOT of material in them. This isn’t a full review, but as a general observation, if there is a recurring issue with Monte Cook Games material, it’s that there are some really strong setting and rules concepts that can get lost in the sheer amount of words used to express them at times.
That said, I love that Numenera Destiny felt like an answer to that nagging, unexpressed question I always felt when looking at Numenera. It provides context and structure to a Numenera campaign that many not fit for every Numenera campaign, but serves as the point of divergence for my brain when I’m wondering what the “baseline is.”
I also really love how building and maintaining a community moves this from general post-apocalyptic or general fantastic exploration themes to a hopeful forward momentum feeling for the setting. When I was wondering “if acquisition and combat aren’t the main focus, what is,” I finally feel like I have my answers, and I want to pull out all of those other interim Numenera products that I picked up and view them from the lens of what Numenera Destiny is providing.