Numenera: The second E should have an acute accent over it. It might be that kind of game…

This isn’t a review of anything. I ramble a bit about four games I think you should get for your computer if you have not yet done so: Icewind Dale I and II, Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera. But I’m not reviewing any of them in any kind of depth, I’m pretty much dipping my toe in and telling you what I’m going to be getting into in the next few weeks.
Did I ever write anything about Pillars of Eternity? I thought I did. Checking back, maybe I didn’t. It’s a Fantasy RPG computer game, very much in the Icewind Dale vein. Icewind Dale was building off the success of Baldur’s Gate and Torment: Planescape, both of which are still fondly remembered by people who played them. I loved Icewind Dale. Lurrrrrved it. I and II. And I’m still bummed that it isn’t the kind of game you see too often.

I get excited and nostalgic just looking at that UI.

Icewind Dale came out in 2000. Icewind Dale II came out in 2002. I can’t think of too many other of the same type (party based, isometric projection, computer implementations of a paper and pen rules-set) certainly not with the same quality and weight as Icewind Dale.
Having replayed Icewind Dales over again, I was kind of interested in seeing what Baldur’s Gate and Torment were like, having been released just a few years before IWD. So I bought them on Humble Bundles or Steam, they were not expensive and I can see why. What a difference a few years of UI experience and graphics development makes, Baldur’s Gate and Torment are bloody awful. Baldur’s Gate it ugly as sin, if playable, while Torment is merely homely, but un-fucking-playable because of its awful UI.

Oh, man. Remember the 90s? This guy does. This guy was all up in them,

With no satisfaction found there, I came upon Pillars of Eternity. I recommend it, a lot: it’s got a good story, good writing, is pretty and I Kickstarted the 2nd game… I think. Kickstarter really should come with a breathalyser. It was a satisfying experience and I was well pleased when I finished it. If you see it going cheap, you should get it. I think it’s like $12 on this month’s Humble Bundle.
The world created for Pillars of Eternity is very rich and very interesting and as soon as the game ended, I was done with it and I never need to think about it again. It’s a fantasy setting, with some interesting world-building twists, but… there’s a lot of Tolkien-analogues and that’s fine. Whoever did their job, they did it really well. I’m glad they went the Tolkien-route over ‘gritty-realistic fantasy’ that gives the people boners these days and which I’m sure we’ll see soon in video games, because ‘gritty-realistic fantasy’ generally just means derivative-fantasy-with-a-slasher-movie-sensibility. Nobody important ever dies of dysentery, so it isn’t that realistic.

Don’t look at me like that.

Torment: Tides of Numenera couldn’t be more different. I started playing and was instantly sucked into the setting as much as the story. Monte Cook, the game’s creator has written extensively on world building and they’re always interesting articles, but it’s another thing to see the ideas played out. He was one of the first people I remember writing about game design in a genuinely engaging way. He’s still doing it and it’s still interesting. Spoiler: After two days of dabbling in this game, I bought the RPG starter set.
First things first: The Torment: preceding both Tides and Planescape isn’t an accident. In both, you play an amnesiac to whom death is a mere inconvenience. T:ToN treats death as a learning experience, (as does the excellent Shadow of Mordor to which I’m currently trying to do justice), and maybe as a necessary thing to move the story along. Having never made it through the Planescape game, because it was heavy on the actual torment, I can’t say what else is similar. But it has to be significant if they inherited the name of a successful intellectual property. Right?
The look of the game would be familiar to anyone who had played Icewind Dale, but the mechanics behind it are a bit different. Combat (Crises) is (are) turn based, a lot more like Wasteland or the new Shadowruns. In keeping with the paper and pen RPGs however you get a Move and an Action – Monte Cook was one of the guys who wrote D&D 3rd edition, so that shouldn’t be too surprising. Skill tests are governed by three stats – Might, Speed and Intellect. As well as each of these having a base value, the player also gets Effort Pools that refresh after resting. When making a test you can choose to expend from your pool and each effort spent will increase the probability of success and in the case of combat, damage. The temptation then is to blow your pools as soon as you have them in your hot little adventure hands, which will leave you useless until you somehow scrape up enough money to afford a place to crash.
Here's Tybir spending some of his Speed pool to try to make a hit more likely to land.

Here’s Tybir spending some of his Speed pool to try to help a hit to land, since he uses fast weapons.

This gets back to the fun of throwing in chips in Deadlands, deciding that THIS test is crucial enough to risk your resources. And it’s a good way of playing fatigue rather than only hit points.
Your characters have differing level of Effort Pools and stats based on their really loose class.
Each character is constructed around the sentence structure “I am a (Adjective)(Class Noun) who (Verbs)” The adjective and verb portion add twists to the Class Noun, which is either Glaive (Brawn), Nano (Magic) or Jack (Tricksy). My T:ToN character, for example is ‘An Observant Jack who Brandishes A Silver Tongue’, so she’s a little good at everything (Jack) but with bonuses to Perception and Diplomacy.

Here’s a paper and pen Numenera character sheet. At first glance it looks like a nightmare, but on second glance that’s because it is designed to look like kind of a nightmare, but there isn’t too much to it.

Even removed from the setting this seems like a pretty good, simple streamlined system. Once you add the conceits of the setting, they get really good.
The setting is that of the Ninth World a couple of billion years in Earth’s future. The previous worlds, each spanning many millennia, saw the inhabitants of Earth – in no particular order – master the basic forces of the universe, rule an interstellar empire, meddle in transhumanism, transdimensionalism and transtemporality, evolve, decline and fall, over and over again.
Not only does this give us the “This Has All Happened Before, This Will All Happen Again” Mormon-mythos-Crack that fantasy nerds can never satiate upon, it wallows in Asimov’s idea of Technology indistinguishable from Magic because the Ninth World stands of the bones of eight other eras. They were eras that made incomprehensibly complex, durable machinery and gizmos and introduced, (one way or another) myriad alien races to Earth. Native Ninth Worlders are at Late Medieval/Early Renaissance level of technology, but they exist alongside leftover futuristic technology scavenged from the ruins of previous technologies, so your primitive hill tribe might have access to Anti-ballistic forceshield belts and facial reconstruction drones. It’s technically post-apocalyptic roleplaying, but the only real Apocalypse has been time.
The surface of the earth is covered in Drit: the sand on a beach is of a mixture of organic matter (shells, bones) and the remains of ancient rocks but if you replace the organic material with broken gadgets and the ancient rocks with other manufactured items, then put the organic matter and rocks back into the mix; that’s Drit. The air itself holds nanobots to such density that Nanos seem to be able to cast magical spells because of their learned or innate ability to command the little buggers.
For gameplay, in T:ToN, this means your character can use a number of different relics of ages past; some of which can be used once, some of which have ongoing effects. Your ability to cart these around is based on how good you are at juggling the different tech types, since they don’t necessarily interact with each other well, rather than the size of your bag. It also means that in a single combat, you’ll have guys with Broadswords hacking at guys with Laser Guns shooting at guys casting spells being devoured by transdimensional horrors. And who’ll win is anyone’s guess. The balance in favour of disposable one-shots vs long term magical items is tipped, compared to the D&D standard. It would take some getting used to not keeping these for when you need them. But that makes for pocketfuls of wacky, flavourful things to throw at your enemies as a matter of course and the game seems to kind of count on you doing that at a high volume of throwing. Easy enough for a computer game, but one of the earliest game supports was decks of cypher cards to represent the weird stuff you find lying around and then throw in cannibal cultist faces.

Glaive, Jack, Nano

The 2 billion years of history setting is a clever one too because it allows you to do your own world building on the fly. A setting like Forgotten Realms is so well fleshed out that any major change by the DM (introducing a new religion or a new society or a new country) would imbalance everything else. The work has been done for you and that’s rad, no complaints. But because the future is wide open between now and then and dimensionality and temporality have been so thoroughly messed with, there’s no reason to pen yourself in like that. There are constants in the world, sure – but the gaps are big enough to allow you to put things in there if you need them. Doctor Who does the same kind of thing: it can introduce new races, technologies, places at the drop of a hat, because it never has to explain why they weren’t there before. That’s not contrary to the structure of the setting – that IS the structure of the setting.

I know!

For some reason this game is really scratching an itch. I’ve seen Numenera the RPG on the shelves at The Source and glanced at it and thought, nah. But this computer game has been fun and it has worked to get me interested in the setting in a way Pillars of Eternity never did. I can’t tell you why, except that it’s maybe the difference between perfectly adequate writing and really good writing. It’s not quite D&D, it’s not quite post-apocalyptic, it’s not quite sci-fi, it’s not quite Steampunk, it’s somehow all of them, just enough.
If Pillars of Eternity was a car that got me from point A to point B comfortably and pleasantly; Tides of Numenera is a car that, upon leaving point A, I decided to take to tour the lower half of the alphabet before I reluctantly exited the car at point B.

There is some really fantastic art supporting this game: I’m not sure they played their strongest hand with the game’s front cover… it is, as I think I’ve made clear, kind of a tough setting to shorthand with a single image, however.

So I ordered the starter set and I’m going to see if I think there’s enough to play a few games. The Rulebook is one of those $50 bullet-stoppers like the Pathfinder rulebook and looks DENSE in setting info. So I’ll see if I want to upgrade to that after I’ve taken it for a spin.

Volunteers required.

2 Comments on “Numenera: The second E should have an acute accent over it. It might be that kind of game…

  1. I managed to post all that without explicitly stating my main point: A computer game that acts as an advertisement for a paper-and-pen game is an impressive achievement.

    Also here’s a much better short review of the P-P RPG that actually digs into the game a bit more:

    And it’s maybe just 1 billion years in the future. For what that’s worth.