column

Top Of The Table – The Weird World Of Numenera

by Matt Miller on Mar 03, 2017 at 09:00 AM

Amid a busy schedule of gaming releases this week, inXile launched their latest video game, Torment: Tides of Numenera. I reviewed the game, and also shared some additional thoughts in a quick video on the project and on our podcast; peruse any of those articles, and I think you’ll be able to tell that I’m an enthusiastic fan of the setting. That’s because Numenera, the tabletop role-playing game upon which the video game is based, is an absolute treasure trove of stellar world-building – a virtual master class in how to defy expectations while still keeping a fiction grounded and understandable. 

Since its launch in 2013, Numenera has continued to grow its universe and whether you’re a tabletop RPG player or not, it’s worth exploring. If you’re a fan of heady, unusual, speculative fiction, this is a world that should be on your radar. And if you discovered Numenera through the recently released video game, these are the books that can let you continue your adventures into the broader universe of Numenera’s Ninth World. 

Numenera Corebook
By Monte Cook

If you are interested in jumping in to try Numenera as a tabletop RPG, the original corebook is your best option. This massive tome includes the full rules for both players and game masters to run Numenera adventures. In addition to rules on character creation, running game sessions, and all the equipment and artifacts that you might need, a large bulk of the Corebook is devoted to establishing the setting of the Ninth World. Here, we learn that humanity has risen again on Earth, a billion years in the future. At least eight previous great civilizations have risen and fallen in the vast gulf of time between now and then, and the remnants of those sprawling (sometimes intergalactic or interdimensional) civilizations still litter the Earth – these strange leftover items of science and technology are called numenera. 

The Corebook introduces the Steadfast and its nearby surrounding, a great hub area for any Numenera game that is filled with bizarre creatures, detailed cities, and numerous influential organizations. You can discover strange places like the Beanstalk, an ancient tower with a “stalk” that rises, apparently all the way into planetary orbit. Or face the horror of the Iron Wind – a swarm of insane nanites that surge across the surface, devouring and warping everything they touch. Even if you just hosted sessions in and around this these core locales, you could keep your gaming group busy for years. But there’s certainly places further afield that afford even more curious opportunities. 

If you’ve never played a tabletop RPG before, and you want a less intimidating entry point, I’d also recommend the Starter Set box, which includes premade characters, summarized rules, and an adventure to get you going. 

Ninth World Guidebook
By Monte Cook and Shanna Germain

If you’re intrigued by the potential of locations only hinted at in the Corebook, the Ninth World Guidebook is your next stop. While it remains focused on terrestrial locales, this setting book highlights hundreds of new characters, lands, and creatures to uncover. 

Among many wonders, the Ninth World Guidebook takes visitors to the Frozen South, and a strange oasis city there called the Invisible Vale, a shielded paradise in the midst of the snow where people have settled in relative comfort. Or discover the Seraph Tempest, a mountain-sized machine that wanders the wastes. Elsewhere, encounter the Triumvirate, an enigmatic group of entities – three androgynous faces that hover ceaselessly over an ever-calm inland sea. Or dare the horrors of the Red Kingdom of Vralk, and find a culture built around cruelty, where the fear of pain is the primary motivator rather than wealth or accomplishment. 

The Ninth World Guidebook is filled with new places to visit, and due to the nature of strange science and technology inherent to the Ninth World setting, it’s easy to transplant a group of characters to one of these new locations with a portal, a strange conveyance, or anything else the game master might imagine.  

Torment: Tides of Numenera – The Explorer’s Guide
By Shanna Germain

Perhaps even now you are in the process of falling in love with the unusual characters, cities, and dynamics of the Torment video game. If you’re a player of Torment who simply wants to continue their adventures with the Last Castoff, or you don’t even want to play the tabletop game, but you just want a deeper glimpse into the lore of Torment, this is the book for you. 

The Torment Explorer’s Guide highlights most of the major characters and locations mentioned in the video game, and then blossoms outward to describe all sorts of details that lie beyond the scope of that adventure. Yes, you’ll find new descriptions and fleshing out of party members like Matkina and Aligern, and you’ll also encounter extensive descriptions of the strange living city called the Bloom, alongside a tour of Sagus Cliffs and its many districts. But you’ll also uncover new discoveries about the surrounding land, like the Black Cube – a hellish prison where everyone has amnesia about the nature of their crimes, or the city of Archopalasia, where an ancient machine regularly copies and recycles all its residents, turning their old bodies into goo that powers the city. 

If your main connection to Numenera is through the new video game, I recommend snagging a copy of both this book and the Numenera Corebook. A gaming group could have a lot of fun taking on the roles of other Castoffs of the Changing God that were not mentioned in the video game, and setting out onto a nearby quest. 

Next Page: Want to travel beyond the bounds of the Ninth World? Visit outer space, the deep oceans, or even other dimensions

Into the Night 
By Monte Cook and Bruce R. Cordell

Beginning in 2015, Monte Cook Games began a series of three Numenera setting books with titles that began “Into the …” Each explores a different way to take the Numenera role-playing game into even more exotic areas. Into the Night was the first in this venture, opening up the grand expanse of outer space for exploration. 

While there’s no shortage of oddities to uncover on the Ninth World itself, this release details the planets and people that live beyond that planet, from nearby planets to distant pinpoints of light on the other side of the galaxy. 

We learn that Earth’s own moon sits in an unstable flow through time, and occasionally the entire planetoid shifts millions of years into its own past. Hundreds of floating cities hang in the clouds above the nearby planet of Urvanas. An ancient halo structure that surrounded the sun now floats as a band of artifact-filled rubble in the outer system. Or uncover an interstellar craft, and visit the Swarmstar – a star surrounded by mammoth manta ray-like creatures with wingspans the size of an entire world, and whose sun-facing surface supports flora, fauna, and civilization. 

Numenera is a self-described “science-fantasy” setting, but Into the Night doubles down on the traditionally science-fiction elements of the experience, adding spaceships, more alien races, and the mystery of being a space explorer. But even out in space, everything has an unusual identity, and maintains the same twists on expectation that characterize games set on the Ninth World itself. 

Into the Deep 
By Monte Cook, Bruce R. Cordell, and Shanna Germain

The second book that pushes against the boundaries of the setting, Into the Deep opens up avenues into the oceans of the Ninth World. The landmass at the center of the Numenera setting is a single super-continent, but the bulk of Earth is still covered in water, and this sourcebook opens up those depths for discovery. 

The oceans have a special intrigue about them, and the billion-years-into-the-future setting lets that mystery grow. Into the Deep opens by addressing the many ways by which adventuring heroes might access and survive in an underwater environment, including water-breathers, submarines, and a network of highly oxygenated invisible corridors that web across the seas, allowing for air-breathers to traverse. Once you figure out a way to stay alive, you can encounter the sprawling empire of the ultra-intelligent octopuses, and visit their telepathic queen in the Coral Cathedral. Or take a jaunt to Joria, a city that sits on the back of a giant crustacean as it meanders through the world’s waters. Even as you wander, you must fend off attacks from the weird creatures now inhabiting the oceans, like the biomechanical fish called Morigo, left behind by a previous civilization, which use ancient infrasound technology to stun their prey. 

Many fantasy and science-fiction RPGs struggle with introducing underwater settings into the fiction, as complex rules sometimes just don’t mesh well with the unusual environment. Numenera’s focus on streamlined rules and in-fiction technology that can allow for virtually anything to happen adds up to some wondrous adventuring options out in the deep blue ocean. 

Into the Outside
By Bruce R. Cordell

If you’re looking for the weirdest of the weird, Into the Outside promises the strangest elements of an already deeply unusual universe. Where other books deal directly with the Ninth World and the other planets in its universe, Into the Outside expands the scope of the Numenera setting into the countless dimensions that lie beyond our own in the endless span of the multiverse. If you’re a GM who simply loves to defy your player’s expectations, this is the sourcebook that may fuel your greatest game sessions. 

Readers learn of parallel dimensions that ran concurrent with our own timeline until a few years ago, at which point a weaponized phrase of words passed an insidious nanite-powered plague across every sentient life on the planet, leaving everyone a zombie-like husk intent on sharing that most dangerous of whispers. Or perhaps your journeys will take you to Panaton, an entire dimension in which time passes at different rates – plants sprout, grow into seedlings, bloom and die in the space of a moment, while nearby a waterfall hangs completely motionless. Or perhaps you will take a vacation to the Tumult, a dimension of pure sound with no traditional physical laws, and where no physical bodies can even exist, and there explore the tritone graveyard or islands of resonance. 

Numenera already promises a departure from standard tropes of speculative fiction, and Into the Outside is the place to go for player groups who want to be astounded and surprised at every new turn. Often teetering into conceptual play, Into the Outside is a marvel of odd and wonderful ideas, and makes for a fascinating read, whether you play the tabletop RPG or not. 

 

I’ve focused here on my favorite setting-focused books of the growing canon of Numenera RPG sourcebooks, but if you get into the game, there’s lots more to discover, including dedicated character option books, artifact books, and even a guide to introducing Lovecraftian elements to a Numenera game. I’m thrilled that Numenera may be reaching a broader audience with the release of Torment, and I hope it affords more players the chance to explore the growing universe that Monte Cook Games has been building. And while I’ve focused here on setting, I really can’t say enough good things about the Numenera ruleset and its ease of play for both veterans and newcomers to RPGs. 

If weird fantasy RPGs aren’t your thing, you may wish to peruse some other recent recommendations in our Top of the Table hub, which you can reach by clicking on the banner below. As always, if you’d like to discuss something I’ve written about (including Numenera), or you’d like to recommend a tabletop game for inclusion, reach me by email or Twitter at the addresses below.