A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

In the far, far future of Earth, the Ninth World is built on the technological bones of countless fallen civilizations. There are mutants, aliens, and stranger things slipping between the dimensions, and the unfathomable tech of ages past looks an awful lot like magic. We talked to designer Monte Cook and editor Shanna Germain about the world of Numenera.

Every year at Gen Con there are a few games that generate a lot of buzz, often selling out within hours. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, but Numenera is the kind of gaming blockbuster you see coming a mile away. The Kickstarter campaign started with a modest goal of $30,000 and ended up raising over half a million dollars. There were long lines to get into all of the Numenera seminars, and they quickly sold out of several Numenera items at their booth.

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

Numenera uses a brand new rule system that's built to take advantage of the unique setting. Conflict resolution is fairly simple, with fixed damage numbers and a limited amount of modifiers to the basic D20 roll. There are three character classes, but these can be modified by a variety of descriptors to create many different character types. In fact, character concepts are easily created by filling in the sentence, "I'm a blank blank who blanks" — by choosing among the character types, descriptors, and skill focuses. "I'm a mystical nano who talks to machines," for instance.

The world of Numenera is very much a science-fantasy world, where technology is not used primarily to examine the future, but rather to create the weird and bizarre. I'm still wrapping my head around the setting, which is huge and takes up the bulk of the 400-plus page rule book. It presents an interesting contrast to 13th Age, which makes fantasy tropes a strength by codifying them and baking them right into the setting. Numenera's science-fantasy setting becomes a strength because it unshackles the game entirely from fantasy tropes, even though it may in practice play out much like a fantasy RPG. There's no urge to include the enchanted forest full of elves or the cave complex full of barbaric orcs, and if you do, they'll be warped and mutated in some bizarre and probably terrifying way.

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

A lot of the feel of the world comes from artist Kieran Yanner, who created the beautiful cover of the core rules, as well as the cover for the upcoming Numenera Bestiary, pictured here.

On the last day of what was surely an exhausting Gen Con, Monte Cook and Shanna Germain sat down with me to talk about Numenera and their plans for its future with obvious enthusiasm and excitement. Cook cemented his reputation as an RPG designer with his work on Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, as well as Ptolus, Arcana Unearthed, and numerous other projects; Germain is an editor and prolific author of dark fiction and erotica.

io9: There are subtle differences between science-fiction and fantasy in terms of the stories you can tell and the kinds of places you can go with them. And you’re in sort of a unique place with science-fantasy.

Monte Cook: What I want is, if you like fantasy you can pick up Numenera and play it pretty much like a straight fantasy game, or you can play it like a hard science-fiction game. But in order to make that work, we kind of had to draw… not very many lines, but a few lines that we sort of won’t cross. We don’t have resurrection, because you raise somebody from the dead and the first question that everyone has is, well, what was it like being dead? Which is sort of a question science can't answer, so we don’t want to deal with it at all. And there are a few magical tropes that make perfect sense for really flavorful magic, like sympathetic magic, or things like that, that sort of don’t fit into the whole Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” idea. Because it is based on a misunderstanding of science, not hard science. So we won’t go there. But other than that, you know, the sky’s the limit, really.

Shanna Germain: And beyond the sky, right?

MC: Right, right, the adventure that we ran here, at the end the player characters go to a citadel in the center of the sun.

SG: That ends well.

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

io9: If somebody wants to play Numenera and get in the mood and get the flavor, what novels should they read, what movies should they watch?

MC: First and foremost, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, but also Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Michael Moorcock’s The End of Time stuff. There's a lot of scifi movies that have come out in the last couple of years that have really cool cutting-edge tech, that it’s good for people to get ideas from, but they aren’t Numenera. But you know, one of the things about Numenera is that we’ve got technology, but we don’t have guns, cars, or anything that’s really relatable in that 21st century sort of way, because I think that kind of breaks the mold. Breaks that sort of, “What on earth does this do?” kind of thing.

So anything that has that kind of weird, alien-looking tech, I think gives a better influence than Star Wars or Star Trek.

io9: With those fantastic aspects, like a citadel in the center of the sun and that sort of thing, how do you tell stories like that and keep it grounded, and not too cosmic… or do you let it be totally cosmic?

MC: Numenera is all about The Weird — we talk about The Weird a lot. And I think the same rule applies to that as applies to horror. You can’t have a horror movie that’s just scare scare scare scare, you’ve got to have that sort of normal downtime. And I think it’s true for this, too. So the conceit that we have is that the civilization that’s rising up in the Ninth World is a somewhat relatable, sort of almost ancient/medieval-level kind of society, right, so if you played D&D, if you’ve seen or read Lord of the Rings, you kind of get the basics of the Ninth World. We're just throwing in the weirdness on top of that.

SG: A lot of the stories we're telling with our adventures are small stories, and so they’re very character-focused. Because every community is so isolated, you get these little communities that are really sort of grounded, and then all of the weird stuff happens around that. So you have a sense of normalcy, but that makes the weird seem even more weird. It’s really important to feel like, for the player’s characters, it’s not that weird. It is the world that they live in. For the players it's very very weird. So there’s an interesting disconnect too, so I think it really has to be grounded.

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

io9: The rules strike me as the type of ruleset that says, “Here we are but now we want to get out of your way so you can tell stories.”

MC: Numenera has very much a grown out of the idea that this is the way that I want to play a roleplaying game. I want to be sitting at the table with my friends and talking about things. We’re not looking things up in rulebooks. As the gamemaster I’m not keeping track of a whole bunch of complicated stats or rolling dice and looking up tables. I’m talking to you and we’re interacting and you’re talking back to me and we’re creating a story together.

SG: And standing behind me and making me nervous. You can walk around [when you run] Numenera. The GM can move around the table and interact with each person, and when Monte does it it’s like, “Oh, my poor character…”

MC: And so the mechanics that are there are the kinds of things that, you know, so much of the time I feel like players in a particular game, you have to tell a story in spite of the rules. Like the dice roll indicates something that doesn’t really work for what’s supposed to happen, or the character ability doesn’t really let the character do what he wants to do. So I wanted to create a ruleset that didn’t have the rules get in the way. So that’s why we have mechanics like GM intrusion or player effort, where you can really shape what’s going on within the bounds of the rules as opposed to, “Well, let’s pretend that rule didn’t exist for a minute.”

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

io9: The rules don't use a grid or specific distances for movement, but there are Numenera miniatures. How do you think the decision to use or not use minis affects an RPG?

SG: I think [not using minis] is that transition from “Here’s my character on this board,” which is a really fun game to play, to “Here I am, this is what I can touch, how far I can see.” It puts your eyes back in your head as your character. So you can see from your own perspective. It reduces that distance [between player and character], which I think is really important to storytelling.

MC: I like using miniatures in a game too, but there really is a difference between “I’m my character,” and “This mini is my character.”

SG: And we talk about using minis in the book. A lot of people have minis, we understand that for some people, part of their joy of roleplaying is having minis. We don’t want to take anything away from you. If you want to play with minis, it’s designed to be able to handle that, if you want to do it without, it’s designed for that too. A lot of what were trying to do is put those options back in the players’ hands.

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

io9: Do you have plans for the world of Numenera to shift over time and have events and things that change the world?

MC: No… no. Because we want to be so GM focused, and that kind of thing, the minute that you say “Oh, the world has changed,” you’re kind of undoing what gamemasters have done. So I’ve never really been a big fan of that. And I’m really not a fan of that in Numenera. Yes we give you a map, but there’s probably lots of places that aren’t even on the map, so you’re free to add in anything you want and we’re not going to come along and change it.

SG: Somebody was asking me if we were going to make Numenera Second Edition. And my answer to that was no. We’re not going to come back with a new set of rules. We’ll come out with all kinds of awesome stuff to add on, but the core rules I don’t think will ever change. There’ll never be a new edition of Numenera rules for people.

MC: That thought had never entered my mind until this very moment.

SG: I think they were nervous. That they would love this game and we’d come out with something different. It’s an industry trend so it seems like a valid question.

A new age of science-fantasy RPGs dawns with Numenera

io9: With a lot of games, you open the monster manual and see a lot of variations on old ideas, and maybe one or two really unique creatures. But with Numenera, each one really kind of blew my mind.

MC: I have this theory that if you give artists a very precise description of the game world, they feel sort of constrained. And if you give a writer a cool piece of art, he’s inspired or she’s inspired. So the reason we have a lot of that art already done is because we're telling our artists "Give us three cool creatures."

SG: And that’s it, that’s the entire art order. And they come back with the most amazing things. It happens with a lot of our landscapes. There’ve been so many landscapes where we’ll say, “Make us something set in The Beyond,” and they come back with things that we never would have thought of, and it’s beautiful and ornate. Then we get to do the fun part of, “Look at that thing in there, let’s make that into something!”