Numenera and the Concept of the Weird World
My two favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, which is boilerplate for nerds around the world, but I had no idea how to open this post beyond stating the obvious. The main reason why I like these genres is because they both allow stories to exceed the possible — sci-fi goes beyond technologies that we live with now, and fantasy…well, fantasy has license to simply blow the doors off of reality. Novels, movies, and video games are all about escapism, and give us stories set in worlds where problems can be solved with a plasma cannon or with a carefully selected magical spell, unlike the real world where a lot of the issues that concern us are way outside of our reach or exceed our available resources to deal with.
Most fantasy, though, seems to have limits. “high fantasy” is a super-popular sub-genre which practically defines the sweep of its parent, thanks to the enduring nature of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other folks who use letters as whole names, and folks like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss whose names are short enough to spell out in their entirety. I shouldn’t have to elucidate the meaning of “high fantasy” for you, dear nerd, but in the event someone happens along who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, consider this: elves who live in trees, dwarves with Scottish accents who live under mountains, humans who bumble through the world and reproduce at astonishing rates, maybe a live dragon or memories of dragons long since dead, orcs, trolls, giant spiders, and of course, magic both good and evil. Despite the presence of magic as magic (unlike “the Force as midichlorians”), high fantasy worlds seem to have a hard stop to their possibilities. The genre offerings always seem to have lines that they won’t cross, because even when you’re talking about pointy-eared humanoids who live hundreds of years and in the woods, there are some ideas which are apparently too wacky to approach.
Thing is, I LIKE the wacky approach a lot more than fantasy with artificial bounds. Sci-fi will always need to be rooted in the idea that “we’ll get there, someday”, which is why I love shows like Battlestar Galactica (the newer) and The Expanse (and the book form). Over the years, I’ve come to want more from my fantasy than what Tolkien’s legacy has left us with, and I’ve been able to find such things in works of Clive Barker (Imagica, et al), Felix Gilman (Thunderer, et al), and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, et al).
What ties these offerings together isn’t their lack of elves and dwarves, but their world building. High fantasy popularized the practice of deep world building, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find a D&D DM who DIDN’T get into the business because of his or her love of creating a whole world from scratch. RPGs, in particular, give people opportunities to create worlds to their liking, and a lot of game-runners tackle this step with gusto because it sets up the parameters of what is and is not possible for players and NPCs to accomplish. But world building is hard, especially if one has grown up only on a diet of high fantasy with its contrived limitations and an understanding that if the Evil Necromancer can raise an army of the undead, then by golly the players should be able to do that too! And if the players can wield the Sword of Interdimensional Collapse, then by golly…the Ultimate Evil should be able to do that too…for better or worse. I call this the “Deck of Many Things Conundrum”: give your players leeway to come up with creative solutions, but don’t destabilize the game world because if the players can do it, then the NPCs should be able to do it as well*.
When the world becomes a character, things get interesting. Case in point: Numenera, a setting that uses Monte Cook’s Cypher System for role playing games. The world of Numenera pulls absolutely no punches; several billion years in Earth’s future, humanity has survived several “ages”. Each new age is built upon the ruins of past ages which means that players in the current age are constantly finding bits of ancient artifacts — numenera — that are unexplainable and range from the stupidly mundane to the terrifyingly game-altering. Whereas high fantasy discourages the idea that the players should find themselves in control of something that could cause the fabric of reality to turn itself inside out, Numenera considers that kind of opportunity “a day that ends in ‘y'”.
As you can imagine, this opens up opportunities for game runners to throw down absolutely anything he or she wants to in an effort to reward or bait the players for making good decisions or to try and push them to make really, really bad ones. Magic works as either a mystical force OR as science. Space ships are either technologically invented OR are unexplained steampunk contraptions. A creature is either organic OR mechanical…or both…or neither if you can figure out a way to present that. When there is no explained limit to what can be done, or in the case of Numenera, explicit instructions that THERE IS NO LIMIT, things get weird…and difficult.
I tried setting up a Numenera play by post game once, and quickly found myself confounded by the options in the face of established examples of what Numenera is capable of. My scenario involved nothing more than a hand-wavey reason to put the players up against a criminal syndicate, which in retrospect seems lame, and a waste of the expanse of what Numenera provides. In fact, I was recently playing the soon-to-be-released Numenera: Tides of Torment on the PC when I realized that I am simply not equipped to do the Numenera world justice.
Case in point: This screenshot.
If you’ve ever read anything by Clive Barker or China Mieville, then the LEVEL of this kind of weirdness is par for the course. To me, it both makes my skin crawl and gives me gooseflesh because of the sheer level of malevolence and creativity involved in pushing well past the barriers of the kind of thing high fantasy would employ to tackle such a scenario. This is some other-world level stuff right here: one part mystical, one part horror, and one big part psychological. It takes the conceit of the world and employs it in ways that are projecting at an angle that can’t be measured by traditional geometry, and it hurts my head. I am in awe of the creativity in this one panel simply because I know such a system would never have occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m too practiced in the ways of high fantasy, too old to get my mind kick-started to think this far outside the box, or if I’m just nowhere near as creative as I’d always assumed I was. I suspect it’s at least a little from each column, and that makes me sad.
The Cypher System is one of a new breed of “anti-D&D” systems that have been cropping up over the past few years, where the rules call for fewer numbers, less dice, and more free-form roleplaying. For many, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, but I continue to really want to try. Problem is, I don’t know that I could ever do the system justice, certainly not on the level that Tides of Torment is offering. That is what makes me sad: it’s a great system with actual, limitless potential, and here’s me…wasting it.