Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: Numenera 2

Second editions of tabletop RPGs are tricky things.  On one hand, you need to provide a compelling reason for the fans of the first edition to switch over.  Because, if you don't, you have the problem that Dungeons & Dragons has had for all of its history, which is that people stick with the first edition and you are in competition with your own product.  That means you have to change things enough to provide a reason for fans of the first edition to switch.  But if you change too much, you are implicitly bagging on your original game, which tends to alienate your core fans.  Wholesale changes also make all of the first edition material useless, which also alienates the people who bought all of that stuff.

Into this conundrum comes Monte Cook Games, or MCG.  Six years ago, Monte Cook and Shanna Germain kickstarted Numenera, a science-fantasy RPG with a brand new game engine.  It raised over a half-a-million dollars, marking the first big tabletop RPG Kickstarter and kicking off the company.  MCG made Kickstarter a core part of their business model, using it to roll out four additional product lines--The Strange, Cypher System (a "generic" version of the Numenera rule set), No Thank You Evil! (a wonderful, smartly designed vehicle to introduce kids to tabletop RPGs), and recently Invisible Sun.  In a short time, MCG has built a devoted fan-base and is comfortably ensconced in the "mid-majors" of tabletop publishers with the likes of Chaosium, Modiphius, Pelgrane Press, and Pinnacle Entertainment Group.  It's a very impressive accomplishment in a short time.

So, I was a little surprised a year ago when MCG announced they were doing Numenera 2Numenera was not only relatively new, but it formed the mechanical foundation of The Strange and Cypher System, making the prospect of a full reboot a strange one.  If they completely overhauled the game engine, they would not just be running into the objections that you normally get when new editions overhaul the game engine, but also would be breaking the symmetry they had with their other products.  If they didn't change the engine, it was hard to see the value proposition for a new game, especially when the old one had only been out for a relatively short period of time.  So, in part out of curiosity but more out of the confidence that MCG has earned from me with regard to their stuff, I backed the Kickstarter, and got the first wave of new materials a month or so ago.

The core of Numenera 2 is two rulebooks--Numenera: Discovery and Numenera: DestinyDiscovery is, in essence, a slightly edited and revised reprint of the original Numenera core rulebook.  There are almost no mechanical changes to the game engine, and I found nothing that would create any impediments to using a character created using the original ruleset in Discovery.  The biggest change I saw was that the powers of the Jack (one of the three primary "Types," or character classes) have been changed from essentially a combo of the Glaive and Nano powers into a unique set of more rogue-oriented powers.  There is also a new mechanic called "Player Intrusions," (mirroring the previous "GM Intrusion" mechanic) where a player spends XP to create a particular effect or circumstance, much like Fate Points or Hero Points in other systems.  Otherwise, it's the same game.

To be clear, Discovery doesn't hide the ball on this--it is very explicit in telling the reader that what it is doing, and how this is fully compatible with the previous edition.  In fact, in a small but very clever and smart touch, it gives cross-references that help you line up the page numbers for a particular item in the original corebook with the page number for the same item in Discovery.  MCG is hands-down the best in the business in term of lay-out and indexing, stuffing its products full of page references to other products, and now all of those references that went back to the original corebook are still usable.  All of this is designed to beat you over the head with the idea that all of the previous Numenera content is not wasted.

Since the system is the same, let's talk about the "Cypher System" for a moment.  Basically, it is a rules-light system that has, from my point of view, two outstanding qualities.  First, it is very easy for new players to grasp and get into.  The basic game concepts are very intuitive, there are very few stats or other widgets to keep track of, and game play from the player facing side is primarily resource management (your three attributes are expressed as a pool from which you spend points to accomplish tasks, and are whittled down when you take damage).  The second big advantage is that it is easiest game I have found to run as a GM on the fly, as the GM has essentially no mechanical work to do or keep track of.  All the GM has to do for any challenge, including fights, is to pick a Level from 1 to 10 for that challenge.  That's it; no stat blocks to juggle, no other attributes, just a single number.  Even the monsters in the book alter this basic formula only by saying "the monster is difficulty n for all circumstances except X, in which case the difficulty is n-1/n+1."  You can truly run full Numenera or other Cypher System game sessions without cracking open any book and with no preparation.

On the down side, it really is a rules-light game, and if you are looking for detailed mechanical engagement, then you are not going to find it.  My experience with Numenera was that this lack of mechanical engagement really comes home to roost in combat--combat is so abstract and so simple that it wasn't very engaging for me as a GM.  As a GM, you really have to narrate the heck out of combat to make it interesting, as opposed to letting the mechanics carry you along at least part of the way.  But this is not really a critique of the Cypher System so much as an observation about rules-light games generally--I had the exact same experience GMing Dungeon World, for example.  Also, I find that Numenera characters are pretty resilient, making it a little hard to challenge the PCs without throwing high level monsters that the PCs will struggle to successfully hit, which is not super fun for anyone.

In any event, Numenera and the Cypher System delivers a particular sort of play experience, and if you like or liked that play experience you will like what you find in Discovery, and if you don't or didn't then you are not going to be keen on the new version.  They added new sample adventures to the back of the book, which I did not look over in detail but MCG is pretty reliable on that score, so I assume they are at least usable and probably much better than that.  But, if you already had all of the previous Numenera products, I don't think it is essential for you to go and pick up Discovery.

The really interesting product is DestinyDestiny is 100% new material, including three new Types and a host of new mechanical systems.  All of this new material is focused on something that was once very common in tabletop RPGs but is now almost absent--domain creation and management rules.  In earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, when the players reached a certain level, they would attract followers and would have the opportunity to build castles or wizard's towers or what have you.  This would spawn a conceptually separate domain management mini-game, where the player would rule territories, go to war with other kingdoms, and generally run your own fantasy version of Crusader Kings.  Probably the best version of domain management could be found in the "BECMI" version of "Basic D&D," which did a really good job of setting up the domain rules as a relatively self-contained set of systems.

Destiny has the same sorts of systems--simple and clean rules for giving communities stats and different kinds of abilities, a mechanism for communities or other factions to get into conflicts with each other, and ways to improve the capabilities of your community or undermine other communities.  In keeping with the Cypher System's rules-light approach, there is less crunch than you might expect--like the rest of Cypher System, everything has a Level from which all of its other stats are derived.  So, if you want some deep, immersive experience like Civilization where you are determining what percentage of the population should be farming as opposed to building monuments, then you are going to be a little disappointed, as Destiny approaches the topic from a much higher level of abstraction.  But it seems easy to run and easy to wrap your mind around, and the bookkeeping is very minimal. 

But why put this stuff into the game?  Before getting into that, we should talk a little bit about the setting, and my odd reaction to it.  In the broadest terms, Numenera is set a billion years in the future, in the aftermath of the rise and fall of eight successive hyper-tech civilizations.  While the overall technology base of the emerging "Ninth World" is essentially medieval, the remnants of those previous civilizations (the titular "numenera") litter the landscape.  In keeping with the famous "Clarke's Law" ("Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic."), this hyper-tech detritus functions for the people of the Ninth World the same way magic functions in a standard fantasy setting--some people have a vague understanding of how to harness it to do specific things but can't really control it, most people view it as something to be feared, bad guys use it to oppress people and be bad guys, etc.  So, while in a way Numenera is a fantasy setting, it doesn't feel like a standard fantasy setting at all, but something much weirder.

I feel strange talking about the Numenera setting, because my prior experience with reading the material is that I should be all-in on this premise and execution, and yet something hasn't really clicked.  Everything is there.  The art is consistently spectacular.  The writing is great.  The concepts are genuinely creative and innovative, with very little recycled or reskinned ideas.  And yet, I come away from reading Numenera material with the nagging question "what am I supposed to do with all of this creative stuff?"  I have this weird feeling that I am missing something, the hook or the core of the thing that will unlock all of this goodness.  One component of it is that I've never really been into post-apocalyptic fiction, and Numenera is at least post-apocalyptic adjacent.  Some of it is that weird alchemy of why certain fiction resonates and other fiction doesn't.

But, in reading Destiny, I think I have hit upon one structural problem in the original presentation of the setting that Destiny solves, or at least provides a solution.  Both the original Corebook and Discovery repeatedly emphasize that adventures in Numenera should be structured around discovering things about the world.  In good modern tabletop RPG design fashion, this principle is baked into the advancement system--players receive rewards in the form of XP for discovering secrets or uncovering numenera, and not for killing things.  Great.  But this raises a higher level question--why should I care about going out and discovering stuff in this world?  Because the original Corebook and Discovery also emphasize that characters in the setting will never be able to really understand how the numenera work.  And Cook et al. make a point of taking off the table what to me is the most obvious meta-goal of these discoveries--the possibility of reconstructing what happened to the Eighth World and why it fell.  I understand why the designers have gone this route, as if it were possible to figure out in a comprehensive way how everything works, Numenera stops being a quasi-fantasy setting and becomes a science fiction setting (and therefore has to be rebuilt to some degree from scratch).  But this makes the discovery of secrets and numenera sort of like a ball of string that is dangled in front of a cat just out of reach--you can never really get anywhere or get a hold of the string, so eventually you will get frustrated and stop trying.

What Destiny provides is a reason to go out and make discoveries, which is to bring them back to your home town and use them to improve the place.  The narrative loop that Destiny sets up goes something like this.  First, the PCs' settlement is facing Problem X, which can be solved with numenera MacGuffin #1.  As a result, the PCs go to some weird ancient ruin and either discover numenera MacGuffin #1, or else salvage enough parts to build MacGuffin #1.  This is then taken back to town and solves Problem X, but that solution leads to Problem Y, which requires another expedition to get numenera MacGuffin #2 to boost some capability of the community, etc.  The point is that Destiny provides a narrative reason for the PCs to go and do the things that Numenera tells us that PCs should do.

In service of that narrative structure, Destiny also provides a fairly detailed series of crafting rules, as well as a new Type, the Wright, that is the crafting expert.  Numenera can be broken down into an abstract resource called "iotum," which is then the materials that can be combined with the proper plans to build a numenera device.  So, to use an example in Destiny, the PCs might come into possession of plans for a water purifier.  If they want to build the water purifier for their town, they would then go and scrounge enough iotum to take to the Wright to build the machine, which would then improve the town's stats and potentially cause it to grow.  But Wrights can also craft ray-guns or other sorts of "adventuring equipment," so the concept is not strictly limited to civil engineering projects.

There is no question in my mind that some groups are going to be totally disinterested in the sort of campaign envisioned by Destiny, finding it too mundane.  This is in part why splitting the core material into two books is brilliant--notwithstanding my mostly idiosyncratic problems with the original presentation of the setting, you could run a pure Discovery campaign (i.e. a campaign similar to what was presented in the original Corebook) and never engage with any of the crafting or community systems in Destiny.  But, for me, Destiny gives an on-ramp to a campaign concept that can act as a vehicle to take advantage of all of this cool setting material, which was something that I struggled with previously regarding Numenera.  I am a sucker for "concept campaigns," and now there are all the pieces for a really interesting, weird concept campaign set around a little community and its struggles to make it in the world.

Looking an Numenera 2 as a whole, I think you have to conclude that it is an example of 2nd editions done right, and perhaps the best example of 2nd editions done right.  Rather than ret-conning previous material, MCG expanded the game outward, adding new types of game play and themes that build on the stuff in the first edition.  It provides a clear reason for old players to buy into the new material, without invalidating or cancelling the stuff they previously purchased and enjoyed.  No game is for everyone and no game is perfect, but MCG have proven themselves to be among the best in the business in terms of both creativity and the products themselves.  And Numenera, their entre into the world, is still their flagship, and a game definitely worth checking out.