More Than a Map

We have a fantastic map for the Ninth World, by Christopher West. I can’t wait for you to see it in all its glory–it’s a poster included with the Numenera corebook–but for now, you can see a smaller version at Ninth World Hub. Have you checked out Ninth World Hub yet? This is the Numenera fan site and forum–and they’ve got a great ENnie-nominated podcast called Transmissions from the Ninth World. It’s well worth a listen.

However, I write this as I return from a three-day meeting with the team working on Torment: Tides of Numenera, having spent a lot of time talking about what the Ninth World is really all about. The writers working on the computer game will be the first to work with the setting other than the core Monte Cook Games team, and so there was a lot of talk about what Numenera is really all about.

The Ninth World, like most settings, is far more than just some places on a map. There are themes and important ideas behind the cities, mountains, and weird locales that tie it together, providing the flavor of not just the setting, but the things that go on there.

Discovery and Isolation

If I had to use just one word to describe what Numenera was all about, that word would be “discovery.” The very premise of what characters do in the game revolves around that concept. Sure, you fight enemies and overcome challenges, but the goal is the discovery of new and wondrous things beyond those enemies and challenges. The story of Numenera, summed up succinctly, would be, “explorers discover the wonders of the past and use them to shape the present (and the future).” That’s what characters do in this game. They explore the unknown to find new things—new places, artifacts, ideas, and perhaps even people and creatures.

Facilitating this concept is the idea of isolation. It’s a dangerous world, and only the truly capable and brave (or foolish) explore the unknown. Because people stick to their small havens of (relative) safety without interacting much with the world at large, there are a lot of unknowns to discover. The people of a village next to the woods might not have ever ventured deeply enough into those woods to learn what’s on the other side. There could be an entirely different village or town over there, with people just as isolated. Alternatively, there might be a ruin of the prior worlds there, a village of nonhuman creatures no human has ever laid eyes upon, or something even stranger. It will remain unknown until someone goes and discovers it.

One of the great things about this theme to the setting is that it means that the GM is always free to spring something new on the PCs. When the PCs cross over that next hill, literally anything could be on the other side. At no point is a player going to feel like he knows everything about the setting—there will always be mysteries and unexplored places.

Old Versus New

The Ninth World is a very, very old place. But its people are a relatively young civilization. So there is a heady mix of old and new wherever the PCs go. And best of all, the feel for what is old and what is new are the inverse of the expected. That iron sword? That wooden wagon wheel? That grindstone? That’s all very new. That device of glass and synth (the Ninth World term for plastic)? That’s old.

The juxtaposition creates situations you don’t find elsewhere. Imagine, for example, a group of lumberjacks sawing down trees to bring back to town so that woodworkers can make tools and furniture. However, to get their lumber to town these fellows use hovering platforms to carry the felled trees back home quickly and easily.

At first, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Logic would suggest, in most settings, that if people can make a gravity-defying platform they would be so far beyond the need to fell trees (particularly with the saws and axes of lumberjacks) that you’d never have such a situation. But these people didn’t build the floating platform. They found it. (Or rather, someone did—perhaps their great, great grandparents did and they’ve been using it for generations.)

Thus, we have the juxtaposition of the old (technology so advanced it seems like magic) and the new (things from a quasi-Medieval-style world) everywhere you look.

The Unknown Versus the Unknowable

To have a lot of discovery, you’ve got to have things to discover. Thus, the Ninth World is filled with the unknown. Adventuring PCs will encounter creatures, devices, places, and more that no one’s ever seen before.

But at the same time, much of the setting remains unknowable. PCs can discover mysterious leftovers from the prior worlds, but they’ll never discover enough about these past civilizations to truly understand them. They’re too distant. Too alien.

And thus, discovering the past is not the point. Remember, I said “explorers discover the wonders of the past and use them to shape the present (and the future).” They don’t delve into the unknown to understand the past. This isn’t discovery for its own sake. The PCs aren’t archeologists. The PCs are looking for things that are relevant to them right then and there. Something they can take back to their village or town that will make life better.

This might seem like a limitation to a few people, but it’s actually quite freeing in practice. The GM doesn’t have to develop an in-depth backstory for every location or item of the past that no one will ever discover, because that’s just not the point. Numenera, despite having what appears to be an emphasis on the past, is actually all about the present. It’s about the stories that are happening now.

Most importantly, the unknowable ensures that the setting retains its wonder. The strangeness of the past never fades as it all becomes understood.

This is why I tell people that Numenera design is about describing not defining. Some numenera artifact isn’t from the Blahblahblah civilization from three million years ago, used when they fought their great war with the Suchandsuch Empire. It’s just some strange relic of the past. The PCs might find a way to utilize it as a weapon that can create bursts of fire at range, but who knows what it was originally used for or why? No one does. We can wonder, we can imagine, but we can probably never know for certain.

The Weird

Remember how I said that if I had only one word to describe what Numenera was all about, I would say “discovery?” Well, if I had two words, the other one would be “weird.”

A world built upon the remnants of past civilizations (at least some of which weren’t even human) lost to deep time, with the unknowable all around, is a very strange place. Inexplicable things are a part of the landscape:

• A giant face carved into the mountain overlooking the city that seems to sometimes speak in a language no one can understand.

• A forest of artificial trees, each the abode of some strange, gaseous being.

• A mute man made of glass, wandering a lonely beach.

• A lost valley where everything that happens repeats again about five minutes later in ghostly images overlaying the present.

Exploring the Ninth World is all about discovering (and sometimes surviving) the Weird. Every region in the setting chapter has its own section of weird things to populate every campaign, and plenty more ideas are scattered throughout the book. Each weird concept is a wild idea that might be used as flavor or the crux of an entire adventure. That’s up to the players and the GM.

Because when all is said and done, that’s really what the Ninth World is–a place for players and GMs to create stories of discovery, filled with weird, wild ideas.

Monte Cook
Monte Cook

Monte Cook has written hundreds of roleplaying game products, along with numerous short stories, novels, nonfiction titles, and comic books. He is probably best known for his work on such notable titles as Planescape, Ptolus, the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which he codesigned with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams), Arcana Evolved, and of course Numenera and the Cypher System. He is a cofounder of Monte Cook Games, and is our lead designer.

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