Discover - Why I Won't Back Numenera 2
Seeing that Numenera was produced in 2013 is *absolutely fucking mindblowing* to me, because it feels like every other d20 Open Gaming Licence production that started with copy-pasting the D&D 3rd edition SRD. It doesn’t have any of the elegance of games from 2000-2010, and doesn’t have any of the engagement of games from 2010 onwards, and it has no interest in helping players to tell the story it promises to them. Numenera, much like the wonders and resources around which the game was built, feels like a relic of a bygone age.
Jonathan Blow (The Witness, Braid) once said in an interview "When you, as a designer, ask people to give attention to your game, or parts of your game, then you have to stand up to your end of the bargain and make sure that you put detail to the corresponding degree." Numenera violates this principle by saying "You don’t earn XP for killing foes or overcoming standard challenges in the course of play. Discovery is the soul of Numenera.” Then you say "cool! what game systems can I engage in?" and they say "Combat!" And you say "okay...but I wanted to explore...or find technology. Can I be a scientist that really knows stuff but doesn't do com-" "YOU CAN BE A FIGHTER OR A MAGE OR A ROGUE, AND IF YOU WANT YOU CAN HAVE A BOW!"
The worst part, and the thing that it’s important to keep in mind throughout this piece, is that there are moments of beauty in this game. Bad design doesn’t upset me, the world is full of poorly understood OGL and PbtA cuts. What upsets me is seeing the moments of brilliance in Monte Cook’s design drowned out by the clunky, the boring, or the combat.
Numenera isn’t about Numenera -
Reward Structures, Ability Design, and Core Tension
Having a skill called Numenera (referring to the magical technology lost in the earth) doesn’t make the game about understanding those things any more than having Animal Handling makes D&D a farming simulator. Of the seven ability options available to a First-Tier Jack (called “Tricks of the Trade”) six are combat related. The majority of Focii are verbs like “Masters Defence”, “Masters Attack”, “Murders”, “Commands a Halo of Fire”. There are very few that speak to the exploration theme Cook promises (notably “Explores Dark Places” and “Talks to Machines”). These are not anomalies in these rules, picked from page upon page of exploration-rich options. This is a combat game, through and through.
It’s important to note at this point that I love Hack-and-Slash Dungeon Crawlers as much as the next person. I’ve sunk unthinkable hours into D&D, I play a ton of Dungeon World, and when I’m not at a tabletop I’m devouring Destiny 2. I love these games because they understand what they’re making, and the systems support the core emotional loop of the game. Everything in D&D comes back to getting into that dungeon to kill some more skeletons, and that’s elegant. Numenera is a constant bait and switch, which (beyond violating the implicit agreement between designer and customer) gives you just enough broken-as-shit systems to make it feel like it can work when you read the book.
Make no mistake, these non-combat systems are broken. Broken in a way that makes them unrewarding and counter to player’s interests. They create perhaps the cardinal sin of Role Playing Systems: They make the story less interesting. If you want to craft Numenera (the magic items of the game, which are pretty damn interesting to players because...well it’s in the name), you have to be more specific, with the book suggesting “Numenera Crafting (Chemistry)”. Oh and if you want to actually use that skill? It starts at impossible for the average joe, but specialising in the skill and spending some Effort gives you about a 50/50 shot at success. Oh, except the year it takes to make it. A year. If you want to bring that down to a day or two, it goes becomes impossible again. This is a game that talks about rounds lasting a five to ten seconds. In a game where players recover points by resting several times per day. The game isn’t written on this scale, adventures don’t exist on that timeline. The suggested adventures in the back of the book are about three days at most! Also to craft you need to spend XP. Not earn, spend. Discovering a new item through crafting (which is part of what the game tells us it’s about in that beautiful box text) requires players to spend XP. The only way to earn XP is to go out into the world and discover things (by overcoming combat situations). Even in crafting, combat is the point of tension. Crafting is not the core loop to be rewarded, it’s the preparatory phase. This game is not *about* making new items any more than D&D is *about* buying arrows and healing potions from the local shop. Crafting is an administrative function and resource sink.
While we’re talking about this pacing, combat is the only system with a pacing mechanism. Which means if you want to play the social engagement game, everything is reduced to a single roll. Same with crafting, or anything else. You say to the GM “I am going to bribe the guard to let us through.” The GM sets an opaque difficulty in their head and asks if you want to spend any effort. You roll, and binary resolution kicks in. You’re either through the gate or your bribe failed. You either craft the Numenera or you don’t. There’s no pacing, no capacity for tactics or planing. Player wants, Player spends, Player rolls, Player gets or doesn’t get. Rinse and repeat. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, binary resolution and pacing is a tough thing for any designer to nail, but (as with everything we’re talking about here) it hurts so much more because elsewhere in the book we see the design we’re lacking here. Combat has a well-thought out and decently implemented pacing mechanic, where offence and defence flow from the same Pools, causing players to consider whether to spend their HP to increase their damage or to-hit. It has a deliciously devilish “blood-magic” vibe to every decision. But when we look to exploration (what the game is about) there is no mechanic. You just find. Or do. Or whatever. The tension exists in the combat, not in the exploration.
Cook also delivers one of the most smug lines I’ve ever read in an RPG rulebook: DISCOVERY [XP] has nothing to do with killing monsters. I know—that’s weird for a lot of players. Defeating opponents in battle is the core way you earn XP in many games. But not in Numenera. I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets they get for pushing the button—oh, wait, no, that’s for rats in a lab. Well, same principle: give the players XP for doing a thing, and that thing is what they’ll do. In Numenera, that thing is discovery.
For someone who seems to get that players will gravitate toward what rewards them, he doesn’t allow his mechanics to engage with that notion at all. Providing XP for discovery is an amazing idea in a game about discovery. But how does a player engage with that? My Jack skills are all about making different types of attacks and wearing different armour. How do I leverage those into an exploration game? When we read the rules it tells us we get XP if we “discover something a character can use, like an artifact” and gives the example that “if the PCs find an ancient hovertrain and get it working again[...] that’s a discovery.” That there is the only example I could find that involves actually engaging with the mechanics “get it working again.” Every other example, and honestly even that one, feels like GM gift-giving. Hooray, PCs, you found “A miniature black hole that is used to power a dimension-spanning device”. Have an XP. This isn’t interactivity. There is no tension there. The tension wholly exists in killing the Goatmen who were protecting the miniature black hole.
Cook acknowledges that “sometimes, a group will have an adventure that doesn’t deal primarily with uncovering the past or exploring ruins for artifacts. In this case, it’s a good idea for the GM to award XP for accomplishing other tasks.” This is simply mind-boggling to me. After the snarky “I know” when proclaiming his game was about discovery and not killing things, this backflip left me dumbfounded. His example is “saving a family on an isolated farm beset by abhuman raiders” which is quintessential combat stuff. Could you negotiate with the raiders? Sure! But then you’re not playing to your character or the system. All of my Tricks of the Trade are different types of attack, not one of them gives me benefits or advantages to negotiating. I’m specialised in “speed defence”, why would my hypercompetent combat character (which all Numenera characters must be because that's where the upgrades and tension exist) avoid combat?
If we look at the final chapters of the book we see the example adventures. In Beale of Boregal adventure six out of eight of the encounters are combat. The reward structure is “award each PC 1 XP for discovering the truth about Boregal and 1 XP for dealing (one way or another) with the threat he posed to the area. Finally, you might consider awarding each PC 1 XP for helping Seria and Patel and discovering that looks can be deceiving—” meaning that combat is not designed to be rewarding, it’s designed to be a roadblock between the interesting parts of the game, with all the mechanics supporting the roadblock, and none supporting the interesting parts.
Player Side Clarity
“5. If the action still isn’t routine, the GM uses its difficulty to determine the target number—how high the player must roll to succeed at the action. The GM doesn’t have to tell the player what the target number is, but he can give her a hint, especially if her character would reasonably know if the action was easy, average, difficult, or impossible.”
Seeing the amazing idea that character creation is an "Adjective Noun who Verbs" (beautifully elegant) makes it hurt even more when I don't know what my Noun can actually do, when I don't know how to do my Verb. This is partly due to a lack of defined-in-the-rules skills, and partly due to the fact that the evocative nature of the narrative doesn’t link the mechanical nature of character actions. This is where D&D 5e has their design principles sorted: A fighter fights, a rogue is sneaky, and a wizard casts spells. Or if you prefer in Apocalypse World, a gunlugger is armed, a Skinner is hypnotisingly beautiful, a Driver has cars. These are Character Identity Traits, the things that you've just got to do for the game to make sense. But here’s the problem: When we say my Quick Jack “Carries a Quiver”, we get what that means. He carries a quiver, he owns a bow. But when we say my Strong Nano “Rides the Lightning” what does that really mean? It turns out (and this is a crime) Rides the Lightning doesn’t involve riding lightning until after a few levels! But I guess Strong Nano who May One Day Learn to Ride Lightning doesn’t sound as sexy.
The game presents the choice of character descriptors and foci as "just....pick the one that sounds cool!" but then some of them are balanced so poorly that they won’t even work together. A Graceful Nano who Carries a Quiver is strictly less effective within the systems presented by the game. Much like every lie I feel Cook tells me: If a game tells the player that they can be anything, it must deliver on that promise. Not every choice has to be effective in the same way, but no player should be able to put themselves into a character that has significantly less impact on the narrative than their companions. In addition, because of the system's lack of clarity, a player can’t even tell why they suck. They just keep failing at things, with no player side representation of why that should be so.
I’ve taught so many new players D&D and they look at their sheet and say “what does +6 stealth mean?” I reply “If you roll at 10, you tell me your number is 16. Make sense?” It does, it’s intuitive, and it's a great loop. A higher number is better. Numenera, on the other hand, has two changes that destroy this loop. Firstly, the GM, not the player, is in control of how their skills affect the outcome. This is really easy to miss (I did for the first session or two), but it kills the feeling of competency completely. When I roll kind of poorly in D&D, I add my skill modifier, and I still get a higher number. Even if I fail, I can still see the impact my character choices made. Instead of a 10, I took a 16 to the GM. Hell, if a roll a 2, I’m still telling them 8. It wasn’t enough, shame, but at least I still saw my character’s impact. When I roll kind of poorly in Numenera, I fail. That’s it. I don’t feel the impact that my character had on the conflict resolution, because my skill is subtracted GM-side. I don’t know what the target number started on, and I don’t understand whether I was any closer because of the choices I made in my character.
The second thing it does is runs every number through a conversion matrix. You have 10 points in your Speed pool, and you have to spend 3 to reduce the level of effort by 1, which reduces the target number by 1, which reduces the roll needed by 3. If you want to reduce the roll needed by another 3, you need another 1 point of effort, which is not 3 points of Speed now, it’s only 2. Unless you have edge, then you need to take that into consideration. Most importantly, this isn’t a rare occurrence. Spending Effort to increase your chance to do something you want to do is a core part of Numenera’s emotional loop. The game is built around this weird resource calculation that isn’t intuitive to the player. Instead of 3, then 2, then 3, for 3 levels, which is actually 9 points on a die, this should be cut down to something tight and conceivable for the player.
Oh boy that setting is delicious. I could run game after game in that setting, it’s reminds me a lot of Greyhawk, in wonderful ways. More accurately it shows Cook’s previous work on Planescape - a world of mystery and wonder, full of dangerous things. Honestly, I would happily use Numenera as a setting book for another game, the Ninth World is a glorious place in which to explore.
It's a shame to me that Numenera's mechanics aren't better, because the world could use an RPG about discovery, exploration, and hard sci-fantasy in its core emotional loop. But instead we got a game that, for all the bells and whistles, is just unrewarding D&D combat in a new suit. In a perfect world, there would be a game set in the Numenera universe that actually focuses on the investigation. Something that strips away the combat, but paces the creation and understanding of the Numenera as the core tension of the game. Something that demands our characters discover, not only because that’s where we find XP, but because that’s where we find the game.
I see nothing about Numenera 2 that will change this design. I will not be backing Numenera 2. For those of you who will, the Kickstarter can be found here. I wish the best of luck to Monte Cook Games, and hope they can continue their record-breaking streak. I also hope that Numenera 2 proves me wrong, and releases a wonderful game about exploration and discovery that blows us all away.