Numenera is something very new built using some very old ideas in a creative way. What I mean by this is at it's core you could argue it is a dungeon crawl game set 1 Billion Years in the future. That said, you'd be right and VERY, VERY wrong.
Numenera is about emergent play using the tropes of dungeon crawling but wrapped in it is post-apocalyptic junk culture, cargo cult style Clark's 3rd Law cultures, and yet it also has this very Mobius zeerust aesthetic mixed with punk ultra tech deco. Did that make sense? No? Let me break it down.
The game pulls from a LOT of cool inspirations that sounds like a who/who's of Monte Cooks years of writing and inspiration:
- Mobius Comicbook Art Styling
- Gamma World random junk and gadgets
- Cyberpunk trans/post human ideas.
- Narrative effort mechanics
- Kitchen Sink D&D ala Plansecape meets Spelljammer
The list goes on, but what Monte does and does well here is mix it all together into a very convincing setting called the 9th World. It's a very much next age of man ala Thundarr The Barbarian if seen though the lens of David Lynch's Dune with bits of Heavy Metal (Both movie and comics) mixed in. And this is a VERY, VERY, GOOD thing!
Mechanically it uses a system where the GM doesn't roll but sets difficulty and sometimes steps in to dictate the play of a roll but this later option is tied to a benie mechanic to keep it nice for the players. GM Intrusions are basically Hero Points from M&M but with mechanical backdoors tied to how the dice roll. (Roll a 1 and trigger a NON benie based Intrusion.) Higher rolls result in small to larger benefits and everything runs off of a single d20. Damage id static, but can be boosted by spending your pools of points (basically stats represented by energy pools) to nudge difficulties and results in your favor. And the difficultity range is a 1-10 scale while the PC's operate at a 1-6 one. That keeps them from out leveling challenges and starting and higher level characters all have the rough chance to pull stuff off but higher tier (aka level) characters get more pool to spend and other mechanical benefits to offset costs and to lower difficulty with out taping their pools. It works really well but does have a slight meta feel to it...and that's okay!
Where the game both shines and confuses/frustrates players is the Cypher System (the core mechanic) character creation options. It's I'm the Adjective Noun Who Verbs. Which works out as I'm the (status bonus) (class) who (character focus/growth area). The adjective is your native starting bonus. It usually is a stat pool boost, skill, and unique intro gimmick all rolled into one. The Noun/Class element is 3 classes in the game. Glaive (warrior), Nano (wizard/priest), and Jack (rogue) and they have 1-6 tiers and powers and skill bonuses for each tier of play. You'll be spending most of your exp HERE to flesh out your character as they grow. Your Verb (focus) element of the character is where it is awesome and can suck.
When I say is awesome and can suck is because you can misunderstand why some options are there and pick them and then later discover they feel more limited in scope than others. This is working as intended actually. The various focuses are what I call character rounders. Each character has 3 areas they can make themselves unique. The class options, their focus, and finally their items. A player can pick up "Carries a Quiver" and go on and on about why this option is only so-so compared to something more flexible like "Controls Gravity" and I'll point out the option is there specifically to round out characters who are Speed Focused (one of the 3 stats) who want a fire and forget long range attack option that levels up as they do.
(for example) A Glaive who's spending most of their exp on picking up skill specialties, and combat options who really just wants a fire and forget skill in Bows so at least one area is focused and of appropriate tier to every thing else. Or a Nano who specializes in defense and information skills but wants to be combat effective with the party. Or finally a Jack who much like the skillful Glaive is so spread out in their esotaries and tricks they welcome a nice and easy option like Carries a Quiver.
If you are building a character and you want to make up for the lack of scope influence as a Glaive, or prehaps add a edge that most people wouldn't expect as a Jack, or even a Nano who wants to add even more semi-magical tricks to their skills...pick a focus more esoteric than the fire and forget options like "Carries a Quiver" or even "Wields Power with Precision" which is basically "I cast magic better". The uber limited focuses are there for a reason...but I can see why people will call them traps if they don't look at the bigger picture of character development.
I would ding Monte for not explaining this, but in a book as THICK as this and with so much setting information (and there is a TON), rules options (decent amount), and just well Gm advice and starter adventures (check). I'd say this omission was more oversight than malicious design.
The game offers a very polished setting (which is nicely fleshed out in the World Guide recently released), enough character options, and a mechanic that screams to be used in online games that I think it's pretty much worth every buck I spent on it.
Love the game so I went all in and got the print copies and GM screen...among other books.
[5 of 5 Stars!]