In the world of Numenera there are thee different character types that a player can choose from: the glaive, the jack, and the nano. Over the course of the past few weeks, I have created a tough glaive who rides the lightning and a mutant jack who explores dark places. Finally, the time has come for me to wrap up this Tabletop Tuesday miniseries by creating a character of the final type, a nano. Before I do that, though, I’ll share the basic details of Numenera who may be visiting this series for the first time.
For those unfamiliar with the ninth world, Numenera is a game set on our earth, but one billion years in the future. If those of you who are scientifically inclined are thinking “but shouldn’t the sun have burned out and left us to die by then?” you’re absolutely right. But during that billion years, eight great civilizations have risen and fallen, some of them with technology so powerful to alter the shape of the planet and the composition of the stars. When these civilizations fall, the true power of their technology is lost forever, a mystery left behind for future generations to ponder. The current generation has built society back from the ground up to a medieval-level culture, but one surrounded by incredible technology they don’t understand. You play as characters who scavenge this ancient technology to try to better the lives of those around them – or to make money, or for world domination, or for pretty much any reason one might go on a quest in a roleplaying game.
Characters in Numenera can be described in one sentence: the adjective noun that verbs. The noun is your type, one of three character classes that defines the core of your abilities. The adjective is your descriptor, a personality quality or trait that defines some of your skills or stats. The verb is your focus, a unique action that your character is particularly good at. The combination of these three things makes the character in full, and the total number of combinations in the core book is over 1000. Today I’m only going to explore one of those many possible combinations, focusing specifically on the Nano character type.
During the course of history, when each of the eight worlds reached the peak of their civilization, they contributed to the planet Earth mighty technology that would live on long after those civilizations either collapsed or left. One such civilization filled with the world with invisible, molecule-sized robots (what we might call nanites) with the capability of reshaping matter and energy. These nanites lie everywhere, dormant, but various phenomenon can cause them to get moving again. One such phenomenon is the influence of a nano.
In the terms of a fantasy roleplaying game, a nano would be a wizard, a spellcaster. By influencing nanites to change the fabric of reality, nanos are capable of events which seem like magic. And indeed, in the ninth world no one has the scientific understanding to state that their accomplishments are not magic. Any advanced technology we do not understand appears as magic, right? That idea is the most clear with the nanos, who themselves may not even be aware of what they are capable of. I picture my nano character as fancying herself a priestess of a mighty god – perhaps some dormant machine intelligence that provides needed resources to her people.
Nano characters start with a stat pool of 7 Might, 9 Speed, and 12 Intellect. Intellect is very important for the nano character type because they have to actively spend intellect to use all of their esoteries (read: spells). The naturally-low might makes nano characters quite frail. When taking damage in Numenera, Might is generally depleted first, and once it hits zero the character starts dealing with penalties. This means I’m going to want my priestess to stay far away from action during combat, which is fine with me since I see her in more of a support role. So with my six extra point to spend, I bring up her Might to 8, her Speed to 11, and her Intellect to 15.
The origin stories for nanos will look pretty familiar to those who have been following this miniseries from the beginning. My priestess can either be highly educated in the numenera, born with some kind of physiological connection to the nano-spirits, or she can literally be part machine to interface with technology. These options are a bit boring to me, but perhaps a looser interpretation of some of them would satisfy your needs if you want a more creative origin for your nano. In my case, I’ll stick to the listed ones and I decide to have her be very educated – perhaps even indoctrinated – into her abilities.
Looking at my tier one abilities, nanos start with less weapon proficiency than other characters, able only to use light weapons and with no option for armor training at all. However, nanos are automatically trained in numenera, which means my priestess will have a better understanding in the use of technology than her allies. She also gets more cyphers at first level. Cyphers are one-use technology that are everywhere in the ninth world. They are gathered in numbers every session and so meant to be used constantly – in fact, it is the constant cycle of single-use cyphers with unique abilities that gives the Numenera game mechanics their name: the Cypher system. I also have the advantage of one Edge in Intellect, meaning that putting effort into actions that require my Intellect pool will cost me less.
The next thing I choose for my nano is a set of esoteries. I have five options to choose from, and I only get to pick two. I say only, but realistically this option is going to be difficult for me. Looking at the esoteries, two are directly related to combat: an attacking esotery and an armor esotery. One is hedge magic, which allows only basic aesthetic manipulation of objects. Another is a “force push” of sorts but with no degree of focus at all – the book specifically states that I cannot use this to move levers or even to do something as non-specific as closing a door! The final esotery is Scan, one which actually does appeal to my sensibilities a little bit. It allows my priestess to mentally scan the nearby area and identify hidden features or creatures within it.
Looking at the other four, I’m not a fan of my options. I don’t want my priestess to be all about combat. Her stats are literally not designed for it, and to me magic is more interesting because of its potential for weird effects not possible for mundane characters. Yet my priestess realistically doesn’t have access to any abilities like that. Push is completely worthless – I can’t use it to manipulate objects and it doesn’t even work on things larger than my character. And as for hedge magic, the very name implies that it is basic-level manipulation, not the grander sort of magic that it seems a nano should be capable of. I decide to go with Onslaught just for the sake of the party – they’re probably gonna want their nano to have some magical hitting power. But for me, this means taking my character in a direction that I didn’t want to go.
I decide to move on and look at potential descriptors. I’m immediately drawn to options such as Clever, Intelligent, and Learned, which all give me a meaningful increase in Intellect as well as unlocking some useful skills – ideal since right now I only have a single skill. Each of these is a different play on the concept of being smart: clever is more streetwise while a learned character has studied intensely, and an intelligent character falls somewhere in the middle. Intelligent is the safer choice, while learned and clever give more specific skill bonuses but also come with inabilities. I then see one more option that might be worth looking at for my priestess: mystical/mechanical. You choose either word in this set depending on what flavor you want for your character, but basically this refers to a particular level of skill with the numenera. The character gets an extra skill related to numenera, a bonus oddity (a piece of technology that doesn’t really have practical use), and the Hedge Magic esotery for free. That appeals to me the most – I may not be a fan of the hedge magic esotery in the sense that I want my priestess to feel more powerful than that, but having a third esotery at level one definitely fits better with my vision of a nano. To keep with the religious theme, I decide the descriptor is mystical and begin to picture my priestess with lots of interesting jewelry like jangling bracelets and jeweled rings which enhance the mystical aesthetic.
Now we’re in the realm of her focus, the thing that this nano does that is completely unique to her. I want a focus that plays more into the religion angle for her character – not necessarily a supernatural power, but something which would cause folks to perceive her as fey or strange. You can understand how my eye was immediately drawn to the focus works miracles. Characters with this focus have a messianic quality because they are gifted with the power to heal. Now I do like this option – it’s practical, it plays directly into the religious angle for my character – but it’s also very on-the-nose and is risking making my character a bit too stereotypical for my tastes. A female religious acolyte that serves as the party healer? Yeah, let’s move away from that, shall we?
The next option I like is talks with machines. This one allows me to communicate with mechanical devices, which could tie in directly to my idea that she worships a machine intelligence. I like the idea of my priestess having this ability but not intentionally applying it – rather, she thinks of herself as having visions or prophecies. The abilities in this focus don’t particularly support that interpretation though, and looking at higher-level abilities, this would require me to play into the technology side of things more than I want to – she’d eventually even have an automaton companion as a helper.
There are a number of focuses which would grant my nano supernatural abilities, but I really don’t want to move in that direction. I want her nano esoteries to be her primary form of magic, with her focus expanding more on the religious aspect of her character. What finally draws my eye is a one-word focus: leads. This focus is framed more like a military leader and is primarily recommended for glaives or jacks. But what if this loyal following was a cult? What if my priestess was not bookish and devout, but charismatic and powerful? This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that her faith is false – I picture her as truly believing in the strength of her god. She simply has the charisma to spread that devotion to other people, and it builds her a loyal following of worshipers. At tier one, this focus automatically gives her training in all social skills, giving me a skillset that my character otherwise didn’t have any proficiency in.
I can definitely envision this version of my priestess character – a mystical nano who leads. Her esoteries make a lot of sense this way too: Scan for having knowledge that others do not seem to have, Hedge Magic for performing tricks to wow the masses, and Onslaught for blasting through enemies of her god. She has three cyphers and two oddities, a large collection of strange devices which, along with her jangling and colorful jewelry, give her a mystical aesthetic that helps to draw people in. I like how everything is coming together now, so the last thing I need to figure out for my nano is a name.
For whatever reason the Greek oracle Cassandra immediately comes to mind. I don’t like my character names in Numenera to sound too much like real names, though, so I’d want to cut it up into something like Assa or Andra. I prefer Assa (I’d pronounce it AY-sah) out of those two, but want to consider some other options. I look up some Egyptian goddess names and see a couple that look interesting. I particularly like Amunet and consider just using that. Even though I wouldn’t be changing it like I have the names for my other characters, it doesn’t sound like a typical Earth name to my ears and its similarity to “amulet” reflects the character’s bejeweled aesthetic. I decide to go with it, naming my mystical nano who leads Amunet.
Now that I have three potential starting characters for Numenera, I think I’ve done what I wanted to as far as exploring this game’s character creation process. I feel like the options for nano are perhaps the most limited, but what this whole process has taught me is that Numenera depends heavily on the descriptor and focus to give your character a unique flavor. Because there are so many possible combinations, the character types themselves lack the variety of character classes in other games which would have to stand alone. It’s an interesting distinction. Of course, I can imagine if I were going to be playing this game for real that I would probably want at least one of the character supplements which expand the options you have. Even though the base game technically has over a thousand combinations, the differences between those possible combinations don’t feel meaningful enough for my tastes.
I hope you enjoyed this dive into Numenera, adventurers! In August my plan is to explore a bigger variety of games for Tabletop Tuesday and to focus on an aspect of the game other than character creation. It’ll all be tied together by a theme, though, so be sure to come back next week to enjoy more tabletop RPG shenanigans here on Adventure Rules! Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear about your own impressions or experiences with Numenera in the comments!