Cyphers, Oddities, Artifacts, and Discoveries
Since I keep calling Numenera a post-apocalyptic game, it’s probably worth talking about the effect that has on gameplay. Specifically, the fact that there are all these amazing technological remnants fill the world around the PCs. Now, obviously, it helps define the setting, but it also affects the mechanics.
From the point of view of the people of the Ninth World, technology and its remnants (lumped together with the term “numenera”) can be broadly classified in four categories: cyphers, oddities, artifacts, and discoveries.
In many ways, cyphers are the most important aspect of the numenera. So much so, that the working title of the game system itself is the Cypher System. Cyphers are one-use, cobbled together bits of technology that characters frequently discover and use. When the PCs come upon an old device, defeat some artificially enhanced or designed creature, or simply sift through the ruins of the past, they can scavenge a handful of new cyphers.
Because the technology of the past is unknowable, cyphers are often determined randomly. A GM, however, can place them intentionally as well. They’re one-use cool powers that can heal, make attacks, or produce effects like nullify gravity or make something invisible. The sky’s the limit. But they’re always consumed when used. And they cannot be hoarded. Collecting cyphers together in one place, or carrying many on your person can potentially have a detrimental effect–from the long term (illness) to the short (explosion!). So essentially, characters only carry a few at a time. However, they are found with such regularity that players can be pretty free with their use. There will always be more. And they’ll have different benefits.
This means that in gameplay, they’re less like magic items and more like character abilities that the players don’t choose. Which leads to really fun game situations where a player gets to say, “well, I’ve got an X that might help in this situation,” and X is always different. X might be a bomb, a short range teleporter, or a force field. It might be a powerful magnet or an injection that will cure disease. It could be anything. Cyphers keep the game fresh and interesting. Over time, characters can develop the know-how to be able to safely carry more and more of these, so they really do end up seeming more like character abilities and less like gear.
Sometimes you find things that are interesting but have no real game value. By that, I mean, they don’t help in combat. They don’t give you amazing powers. They don’t protect you. Not everything the ancients created was a combat device. In Numenera these things are called oddities and they serve a number of purposes.
First, they’re just there for verisimilitude. Not everything is suited for an adventurer. Second, they’re there to be interesting. Weird little things that can be sold or used for barter or gifts. They’re the 100 gp gems of Numenera. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they add more mystery and feelings of the unknown to the game. Because oddities are really odd.
- A glass plate that shows an aerial view of a city that no one’s ever seen.
- A egg-shaped metallic bauble that occasionally spins and speaks in a language no one knows.
- An aerosol can that sprays sparkling paint that hangs in the air.
- A device that emits a projection of a human face that changes expression depending on what direction it is facing.
What did their creators make these things for? Were they once a part of alarger device with a more understandable function? No one knows, or likely ever will.
Artifacts are the tech devices that you probably expect in the game. These are devices of a more permanent nature (unless they run out of power) with more straightforward applications. Weapons, armor, utility items, and so on. Still, rarely are they straightforward. It’s far less likely to find a “gun” than it might be to find some item that can be used effectively as a ranged weapon, but might have originally been some kind of power conduit that has been modified and adapted as best as Ninth World understanding could manage. Some characters, given the right tools and parts, will be able to construct these on their own.
I suppose you could call artifacts the “magic items” of Numenera, but since they’re science based, anyone can use them.
Discoveries are a sort of catch-all of stuff that doesn’t fit into the other categories. In the playtest, the PCs recently came upon what they figured out was a sort of underground hovertrain. Getting it to function (sort of) was the subject of most of a session, and turned out to be interesting and even thrilling all by itself. This was a discovery. It’s not an artifact they’ll be able to claim as their own, and while it’s useful it doesn’t make their characters more powerful, necessarily, but it’s cool.
Last week I posted about experience points coming from discoveries and this is the kind of thing I was talking about. Not every bit of prior-world tech equates to an XP reward, but often they will, if they’re interesting.
I suppose technically, “creatures” might be a fifth type of technology, but they are really their own thing. I’ll talk about monsters/NPCs and the role of the GM in coming columns, and this will help show some of the ways that Numenera is meant to make life easier on the GM and overall be a quick and easy game with a strong narrative focus.