Numenera: The Game of Choice

If you play RPGs, chances are you’ve heard of Monte Cook and his game Numenera. It’s an ambitious RPG set a billion years into the future of Earth, where technology is so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

The setting is very cool, and lends to all sorts of weird possibilities for play. Monte writes “discovery is the soul of Numenera.”, and the setting is geared largely for that. It’s all new and weird. XP is likewise handed out for discovery rather than conquering.

But there is one aspect of the game that makes it more interesting: choice.

By their nature, RPGs offer more choice than any other game type. What other game type allows you to weigh whatever you want to do and then play out the consequences? None that I’m aware of. Choice is the reason that an RPG requires a human referee.[1]

That said, Numenera has two mechanics which help players and GMs make more interesting choices: GM Intrusions and Effort.

GM Intrusions

GM Intrusions are used by the GM to award experience for endangering the characters. The GM will put the character in a situation, usually for the worse, and the player can either accept the situation and earn XP, or pay an XP to avoid the situation. If the player doesn’t have XP, then they cannot refuse the situation.

GM Intrusions give the player a choice to make, accept the failure or danger for reward later, or safety now at expense of progression. They also give the GM greater fiat in introducing consequences; it is more satisfying to inconvenience a character/player when you know they can refuse it or accept it with a perk.

True to their name, XP are used to advance the character. They may also be used to re-roll pernicious failures. The player chooses to sacrifice future progression for benefit (often safety) now.

Numenera is not the sole RPG with this mechanic. The astute reader will note that Intrusions are very similar to compelling aspects as done in the FATE RPG. Many other RPGs also now use points or tokens to make consequences more palatable, which may be redeemed for various benefits, e.g. re-rolls or bonuses.

One small difference, though kind of fun, is that a GM Intrusion actually yields 2 XP to the recipient, who is then obliged to give one of them to another player. This stretches the character’s choices further; I’ve seen players accept an intrusion just to be able to give an XP to another player who is having difficulty (especially when someone is suffering from bad die rolls).

Effort

Effort is the mechanic that gives players interesting choices, where they can decide whether or not something is important enough to invest directly in the outcome. In other words, whether to put some skin in the game.

When making a roll, a player may use some of their attribute points to add to the roll. Spending these attribute points is called expending effort. Spending those attribute points can affect other actions later in the game (e.g. spending might points makes the character more susceptible to wounds).

Why is this special? Because, before a roll is made, a character can decide if an action is really something they wish to accomplish. If so, they literally put something of themselves into the action. They can push themselves a little further or harder than normal, at the sacrifice of their might, speed, or intellect.

There are other mechanics within other RPGs that allow a player to influence the chances of success for actions they consider important, such as SOTC’s Bennies, Dr. Who’s Story Points, or even D&D’s Inspiration. But those mechanics don’t actually demand something of the character. Effort is a direct sacrifice of the character.

Often during our games, I neglect to announce the difficulty of a task, but still ask if they wish to expend effort. This is to encourage the player to ask themselves if the action is important enough to their character, rather than expending effort simply to boost chances at a difficult task.

Reinforcing Choice

The opportunity to sacrifice progression (XP) or well-being (attributes) to prove that something is important is something I’ve not seen in other RPGs.

Numenera is a unique RPG, not only for its setting, but for the mechanics it employs to encourage the characters to invest themselves into their actions and decide what is important. It encourages the players to make choices about their characters, and choices make the game more interesting.

Thanks to Chad Shurtz, Tanis Kint, and Jeff Lohberg for reviewing this article.


  1. I should clarify I mean player choice, not GM choice. GM’s make decisions based on mechanics all the time, e.g., using the level of the players to decide how difficult a foe should be.  ↩