Back when I was contributing to Castles & Cooks, I reviewed the original Numenera game in one of my first big book reviews. It will surprise no one that my interest in Cypher remains, so when Monte Cook Games announced an update of the Numenera core books I eagerly signed up. As they recently announced they sent copies out to backers so you guys are in for a shiny new review!
What Came Before
Let’s start with a look at the broad strokes of what differentiates this edition from the last one. The biggest one, of course, is that there are two books to buy this time. That’s a big change, but it’s important to remember that all of the stuff that you love in the original Numenera book is still covered in one place: Numenera Discovery, the subject of this review (Destiny will be covered in the future). This division actually works well for newcomers and veterans alike. I’ll talk about the benefit to veterans later in the review but for newcomers they can still buy a single book and have everything they need for many Numenera campaigns straight away.
It’s also a big benefit that you can continue to use all of your Numenera supplements since the actual mechanics of the game are unchanged. Importantly, Numenera Discovery contains margin notes so that the core book page references for those supplements continue to work as well with a minimum of fuss (see this MCG update for more on that). There are also some cool mechanical updates in addition to editorial ones, including default cypher lists and player intrusions.
Default cypher and oddity lists are part of the equipment lists for types and they are just a list of special items that work well for that type. Glaives, for instance, might appreciate having a density module and a rejuvenator. Nothing stops you from rolling randomly but (first hand testimony here) sometimes you hate making a great character and getting random junk for your magical items.
The other broad strokes change, and also something that appeared in an MCG update, is the addition of player intrusions. Every type comes with a handful and they are a great idea that fits neatly into the game. GM intrusions have been in from the beginning, little obstacles that the GM can throw in the players’ way but that they can refuse by spending 1XP. Most Numenera GMs also listen to player suggestions for intrusions so this has never been one-sided but now there’s the option of players suggesting positive events in the game and giving up an experience point to make it happen. A nano might spend an XP to get a glimmer of insight, for example, or they might spend to have a cypher use against them malfunction in a way that really helps the nano out. It’s a tidy inclusion and one that deepens the game.
Descriptors and Foci
On the subject of descriptors, that’s an easy review: all the descriptors from the original Numenera core book are here and they are unchanged as far as I’ve seen. That includes visitants and mutants, by the way. There might be some editorial updates here (changes in language, including the clarifying “hinder” and “ease” for “raise difficulty one step” or “lower difficulty one step”) but there’s no substantive change from what I’ve looked over.
Foci are nearly in the same boat, by which I mean that the list of foci in the book is pretty unchanged. [Edit: One widespread change is that all foci have a choice between two abilities at Tier 3 and Tier 6.] There are a few missing, though. Creates Unique Objects is gone, which is understandable since its whole deal is covered by the wright in Numenera Destiny. Leads is also missing, but that one actually makes a reappearance in Destiny, which also makes sense as there’s a brand new followers system in that book. The only one that’s totally cut is Carries a Quiver, but there are some new glaive abilities (see below) that can recreate a lot of that focus’s abilities. There’s one new Focus too: Speaks With a Silver Tongue. This is the quintessential party face with abilities to bolster morale, intimidate enemies, and smoothing over your entrance into town.
The changes to the glaive are slight but they’re there. The first one is that glaives start off Trained in Armor instead of Practiced; this reduces the Speed cost of wearing armor by 1, instead of 2. There’s no longer a Might cost for wearing armor so that part’s gone, and there’s a later ability that can boost it again.
Speaking of abilities, these are pretty much half new and half old. For instance, at Tier 1 the glaive has No Need for Weapons and Trained without Armor but also four new ones. Whereas before the glaive had straightforward abilities like adding a bit of damage or making a task hard for an enemy. The new abilities focus on tactics and uniqueness, such as running quickly or misdirection. Other tiers follow suit. I don’t think the glaive’s abilities were boring or anything before but they certainly weren’t as interesting as the nano’s. I’d allow players to pick from the older list if they are inexperienced or just want something with fewer moving parts.
This is another easy review as the nano’s abilities don’t have any substantive changes that I can spot. There are editorial edits and the authors added default lists for cyphers and oddities, and they added player intrusions too. If any eagle-eyed readers see something that I missed I’d love to hear!
This is the big one. The authors have said that they wanted to totally rework the jack, not because it was broken or didn’t work but because the original jack had a mish-mash of glaive and nano abilities. This is all well and good, the classic swordmage trope, but MCG rightly recognized that the game needed three basic character types and not two types and a third half-and-half option. With that, the abilities of the jack have been totally redone. You still get the balanced Stat Pools and the flex skill (a joy and a curse for GMs, in my opinion) but you have different tricks at every tier. For example, at Tier 1 you get…
- Trained in Armor: This is the basic ability for glaives described above, reduce your Speed Effort cost by 1. Makes you a little more combat-ready.
- Create Deadly Poison (3+ Intellect points): The jack was always supposed to be a rogue-like character type so this ability really fits well.
- Critter Companion: Animal companion! It’s just a level 1 creature but this is definitely something that neither of the other types can do.
- Face Morph (2+ Intellect points): This is some great magic here and something that is both definitely sorcerous and definitely trickster-ish.
- Fleet of Foot (1+ Speed points): The glaive also has this ability, but it basically lets you use movement along with other actions. A form of this appeared in the Cypher System Rulebook, but this one involves no roll.
- Late Inspiration: Retry a task you failed less than a minute ago, this time with an asset. This fits so well with the flex skill.
- Link Senses (2 Intellect points): This makes sense and it allows the jack to bind the group together and combine everyone’s skills which is a great option.
- Phased Pocket (2+ Intellect points): Another great, sorcerous ability which allows them to create a small transdimensional space to hide stuff in. This is thoroughly in the jack’s wheelhouse and different from the nano’s.
- Vanish (2 Intellect points): The jack can turn invisible with this, playing into both their rogue abilities and their magical dabbling ability.
Some others that caught my eye are Augment Cypher (Tier 2), which lets you boost a cypher’s level in a nano-esque way that nanos can’t do, and Obstacle Running (Tier 3) which is a very physical option that likewise doesn’t tread on the glaive’s toes. This is a big improvement and, while the old jack works perfectly fine, I’d actively try to talk someone out of using it in favor of this new design.
Cyphers and Artifacts
All the artifacts from the original core book are back with the exception of the psychic whistle (too silly? who knows…). There’s also a new psychic helmet, but that doesn’t do the same sort of thing and is instead for defending against mental attacks. All the original cyphers are here as well, and (most excitingly) a sidebar on alternate rules to cypher depletion if you don’t want your magic whatsits to fall apart all the time but you don’t want them to break the game. I’m still sticking with depletion but it’s good to have some new ideas floating around too.
Creatures and Adventures
This is a familiar refrain by now but most of the creatures found in the original core book, including iconic NPCs, are in Discovery as well. The only ones missing are the pallone, rubar, and scutimorph. This seems like a cutting room floor thing to me. All three of these creatures are in contention for the flumphs of the Ninth World and I for one have never really considered using them in adventures. Use the stats in the other book if you really like them but otherwise let’s make room for better things! Like more creature illustrations, which are just as gorgeous as usual.
The long and short of all of this is that Numenera Discovery isn’t hugely different from the original Numenera book, just updated based on play experience. This is good and bad for a few different reasons. Tl;dr – This book is great if you want updates. If you aren’t really interested, you can skip with few issues.
Let’s start with the bad. Many people might understandably be disappointed when they crack open Discovery and find whole sections copied from their original Numenera books with some editorial edits. They might be expecting big overhauls and brand new stuff! This is meant to replace the old core book, though, so it makes sense that a lot of it isn’t rewritten. The authors want you to be able to start using this the same way as you used the old book and they want you to be able to convert readily: just like there’s a fireball and a magic missile in D&D 5e that are mechanically really similar to earlier editions, there’s are abilities that look pretty familiar.
The good part is that the mechanics aren’t changed and that all the new stuff is in a new book. Some people may try to tell you that this is Numenera 2e. Don’t listen to them. This isn’t even Numenera 1.5e, if you’re old enough to remmember the frustration at the mid-Third-Edition D&D release. This is a set of core book errata that is significant enough to warrant a re-release. If you don’t want to get it, I’m confident that you could have two players with characters made from the original or the new version and, unless you know the system like a boss or your combing over their sheet, you probably won’t notice which is which.
The other good part is that, if you decide not to get Numenera Discovery, you can get Numenera Destiny and still be part of the future! Using Destiny with the original core book should work great since Discovery is set up just the same. You can even get Destiny now and then, when your interest or paycheck grows, pick up Discovery later. However, if you’re interested in the best version of core Numenera, this book is great, accessible, and has some useful and elegant updates.