Numenera is a RPG game from Monte Cook that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and represents a significant departure from traditional stat based role-playing games, namely by letting players do all the dice rolling so the GM can focus on the narrative.
Numenera is set in the "Ninth World", a bizarre science fiction setting depicting the far, far, far future.
Ostensibly, the game world is the planet Earth, but has moved on to the point that it is completely unrecognisable. The timeline places it about a billion years into the future, which means that the tectonic plates have shifted continents about, the sun has entered a different phase and the moon likely orbits differently. Not only that but the landscape has been twisted by extradimensional forces and strange technologies; rendering the planet completely alien when compared to us in the 21st century.
Eight different eras or epochs have risen and fallen prior to the start date of the campaign setting. For comparison; the Age of Strife in the Warhammer 40,000 universe might constitute the transition between one age and another where so much history has been forgotten about by the time the next era comes along, but even that can't really describe the amount of knowledge forgotten about between the ages. Seriously when put into context, if an extinction event happened 65,000,000 years ago and mankind evolved afterward, even if this happened eight more times you'd still only be over halfway to the Numenera setting, so attempting to accurately establish what relation the setting has to "now" is essentially meaningless.
The technological mastery of previous ages is barely understood, and is seen as something akin to magic. But remnants of previous civilisations are lying around all over the place, making up the "Numenera" that characterises the setting. These objects take a huge variety of forms:
- Artefacts, are powerful devices that perform miraculous functions: be it small items like energy swords and medical implants, all the way up to extradimensional teleportation devices and flying cities. Artefacts are generally the most sought after or reliable devices.
- Cyphers are typically small devices that perform a specific, albeit poorly understood function and tend to be used as healing items or weapons. They function in such a way that they generally do not survive the first use, often because they end up being used as grenades or because their power supplies get used up. They also have a tendency to react badly with each other, so it is ill-advised to hang on to too many at one time, due to unpredictable effects. Though Cyphers literally can be found anywhere.
- Oddities are curious devices which have little to no useful function to an adventuring party, representing the everyday technology of former ages; like self-knitting clothes, levitating stones or music boxes that only the owner can hear. Clever gamers might find a use for certain items, but generally speaking, they exist for narrative effect more than mechanical function. And selling for money.
As mentioned earlier, the game revolves around the players rolling dice rather than the GM.
Numenera uses a D20 ruleset, but it's not like D&D, where having escalating skill modifiers can eventually render the D20 itself superfluous, or when they can comfortably overcome any low level encounter without even rolling, or they simply level up equally to challenge rating so any +1 bonus is countered by a +1 to the level of the encounter. Instead, Numenera players modify the difficulty of the test based on their skill.
The dice mechanic of "Difficulty" is simply three times the level of the encounter. So a level four encounter would need a dice result of 12 to beat. This also means that anything over level seven becomes literally impossible to overcome without using modifiers, as a 21 cannot be rolled, and levels go right up to ten, meaning you'd need to roll a 30 on a D20.
You may ask, well, how the fuck do I ever pass any tests with a difficulty of 7 (DC 21) or greater? The answer is training, assets, and effort. You can have up to two levels of training in any given test, whether it's trying to figure out how to hack through a door, shoot a robot with a gun, or convince an ancient energy being to help you survive in space, each level of training reduces the difficulty by one step dropping that level seven task (21) back down to level five (15), making it more manageable. Note that being "specialized" (having two levels of training in an area) often requires being higher level. Some also have "inabilities" in a skill, which makes using it one step harder.
Second, you can have up to two assets that further reduce the difficulty. Whether it's a rope that's helping you climb, a shield that's helping you block, intimate knowledge of the cultural practices of energy beings, whatever, they help reduce the difficulty of the test like training.
Finally, if all else fails, you can spend effort. Characters have an Effort rating, that goes up as they level up. By spending points out of their stat pools (more on that in a sec), they can further reduce the difficulty, though doing so means depleting what essentially amounts to their hitpoints.
The main feature of Numenera is the the "pool" mechanic, You have three: Might, Speed, and Intellect. Each day, you have a set number of points in each pool, and you may expend them to activate powers or apply "Effort", which reduces the difficulty level of a test by each point you spend, though you cannot splurge all your points straight away and guarantee a pass, as the maximum amount of "Effort" you can exert is dependent upon your Tier/Level. However, since your stat pools are also lost if you take "damage," you are effectively spending hitpoints; so if you spend all of your Might to break down a door, you'll drop like a wet sack the first time the enemy behind that door hits you.
To mitigate this, you have "Edge" in some of your stats. Edge reduces the points you need to spend from a given pool once during an action. For instance, if you need to spend one point of Might to active your Slice power for extra damage, and your Edge is 2, you instead don't need to spend any. However, if you also use Effort to try to deal more damage, you'd only reduce it by 1, since you already used up some of your edge on the Slice. The pools are renewed after resting, but can be spent on pretty much every test, meaning players have to manage their resources carefully from day-to-day. Even at higher levels when certain tests or abilities begin demanding more and more expenditure of points. This also puts the onus of management on the players, meaning that the GM has to trust his players not to lie or conveniently forget to spend points.
Finally, all tests are made by the players, even in combat. Monsters don't roll to hit you, you roll to dodge their swings. Each of your stats has a "defense" associated it, with Speed being the most common, Intellect working vs. mental attacks and Might vs. poisons and the like. Though attacks against them are measured the same way as any other skill.(eg: A level three opponent attacking a player would require the player to beat a 9 using their defense stat, and a 9 when attacking them in turn.)
What little impact the DM does have on the game comes through "DM intrusions," where the guy running the game can interpose on the player to make sure that things happen the way that he wants them to, so can cause you to fail a critical a roll at inopportune times. Luckily, you are not actually required to accept this from your DM and can spend a point of XP to ignore the intrusion. DMs should also use the mechanic sparingly, because if the player accepts the intrusion he gets awarded 2 XP, jumping halfway to a level upgrade.
This means that the DM should focus on trying to tell a good story and leave dice rolling to players, only interceding in situations which makes narrative sense (eg. To save a recurring villain) rather than just pestering players into spending their hard earned experience.
Each player picks a Descriptor, Type, and Focus. Essentially, you should be able to describe your character, according to the book: [Name] is an [Adjective] [Noun] who [Verbs]. The adjective is your Descriptor, the Noun is your Type, and the Verb is your focus, and also generally more than one word long.
The "Noun" is the easiest to explain. They are your class.
- Glaives are fighting men and women of all sorts.
- Nanos are techno-wizards with "spells" that can achieve various effects.
- Jacks are skillmonkeys who can be built to do a bit of either. Notably, they have a "flex skill" that they can pick each day to gain automatic training in one area.
Later expansions added more classes, when they realised that the Jacks who were supposed to be Rogues didn't do their jobs too well and often ended up being a multiclassed Fighter/Wizard instead.
- Arkai are bard/Face characters who rock social interactions and specialize in leadership.
- Delves are investigators and explorers, generally better at being true Rogues than Jacks are.
- Wrights are engineers who can craft things out of bits and bobs of the previous Worlds called "iotum".
All of them pick up different tricks as they increase in level. Naturally, this being a Monte Cook game, high-level glaives get a few okay tricks to be marginally better fighters, while high-level nanos get the ability to stop time or throw literal mountains with their minds.
Are like a 5e background, and, in fact, very likely where that mechanic originated.
Your descriptor essentially explains your characters origin story, what race they might be or which region they grew up in. They are a bundle of skills, benefits, extra items and points, etc. Things that give your character flavor. Some of the more powerful ones also have negative stat penalties to your character pools or impose "inabilities" which make certain tests one step harder for you.
Notably, a few of the more-alien aliens, or "visitants," since they've technically been around for generations too, have harsher penalties to offset stronger abilities. Verjellen, for instance, can literally rework their bodies and adjust their stat pools, but they have fewer points to spend, while a lattimor is a symbiotic collection of a brutish bursk and a clever neem who can switch personalities to gain different abilities and penalties depending on who is in control of the body or if they're cooperating.
However, a number of non-human descriptors that are less harsh also exist, such as the plant-like purpose-seeking golthiar and the water-crafting fish-like rayskel. There's also playing a mutant, which involves rolling on a series of tables and seeing what you get.
Your "Verb" is where the sauce is. A focus is a bundle of different powers that you get as you level. From turning into a werewolf to throwing lightning around with your mind, to just being a sneaky bastard or dead 'ard, this is a large part of how you specialize your character.
Some Focuses synergise extremely well with appropriate class Types, such as "Masters Weaponry" being obviously suited to Glaives, who in turn receive absolutely nothing from "Wields Power with Precision." Though nothing inherently prevents players from mixing it up and trying to create something unique like a "Nano who Rages" or an "Arkus who wields two weapons at once" unless the Focus explicitly states it's for one Type only.