Numenera is a tabletop RPG developed by Monte Cook Games. It’s also the setting of the upcoming video game Torment: Tides of Numenera… which was the thing that took my Kickstarter virginity.
Anyway, there’s a lot of thematic similarities beftween Numenera and Transformers: Prime – despite them actually being not that similar. One is a tabletop RPG set in the very distant future, and sitting loosley in the Dying Earth genre of science fantasy, and the other is a science-fiction adventure cartoon created to sell toy robots. A little while ago, AddAltModeR and I talked about this at 2am whilst unable to sleep. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this connection is worth
nerding over looking at in detail, so here we go.
Setting and Scale
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
— Arthur C. Clarke
The first and most obvious parallel between Transformers: Prime and Numenera is that in both settings magic does not exist, but Clarke’s law means that super-advanced science basically looks like magic. Transformers: Prime takes the knock-on effects of Clarke’s law to their extreme: Ratchet is a sentient, shapeshifting robot, who came to Earth on a faster-than-light spaceship and operates a Space Bridge, but some of the ancient artefacts dug up by Team Prime might as well be magic as far as he’s concerned, so where does that leave his human friends?
Numenera is set on the “Ninth World” – which is Earth, 1 billion years in the future. For some reason, the Sun is still at its current stage in its lifecycle, and humans still exist. These humans believe that human civilisation has risen up, experienced its lifecycle and ended at least 8 times before (hence Ninth World). Their world is full of the detritus of previous civilisations, previous worlds. The Ninth-worlders’ history runs back 800 years, and they have well-understood late Iron Age technology, but the ruins of the past are full of things which seem like magic to them. The previous civilisations ran the gamut of every science-fictional concept-technology you can imagine: robots, biotech, nanotechnology, FTL travel, interdimensional travel… whatever. Of course, for a typical Ninth-worlder everything beyond what their science can master may as well be magic: it’s not like they can tell that a walkie-talkie is less advanced than a teleporter. Both do apparently impossible (as far as their science can tell) things.
In the Ninth World, “the numenera” is a term that refers to anything that seems supernatural and that comes from the prior ages of the Earth. From a 21st century point of view, this means devices, machines, vehicles, robots, computers, weapons, satellites, drugs, and so on. But it also means bioengineered creatures, cybernetic beings, and creatures brought here from alien worlds and dimensions.
–Numenera Corebook, p276
A denizen of the Ninth world might have a strange perspective, anyway, on what is natural and normal: if you have always lived in a world where the animals were genetically-engineered for some specific purpose by an extinct civilisation, but then went feral and reverted to natural states, then would you know? If the place you grew up looked like a Roger Dean painting, you’d see that as “normal”. Floating cities in the sky, visible structures on the Moon, isolated colonies of extra-terrestrials and even wierder things are just part of how the Ninth world is.
Player characters in Numenera have a more developed perspective than the average peasant, though. There are organisations in the Ninth World who sponsor “Numenera Hunters” to go into the ancient ruins and try to retrieve usable things. The Aeon Priests wish to study ancient technology to further the “modern” ninth world’s development; meanwhile, the Magisters of the Convergence wish to acquire ancient technologies that they can use to make themselves powerful.
There is of course, a parallel between the conflict between these two groups (which is by no means central to Numenera, which is a delightfully complex setting) and the conflict in Transformers: Prime between the Autobots (who seek to acquire ancestral relics that they can use to restore their ruined homeworld), and the Decepticons (who seek the same relics in order to conquer the universe with them). In Transformers: Prime, about half a dozen Autobots dwell on Earth, searching the planet for relics whilst protecting its natives from the ire of the Autobot’s enemies, who are themselves chasing the same relics. Like Numenera, it seems that the setting has within it a diminished scale in the “modern era” compared to “ancient times”; there are a handful of Autobots, scattered across the galaxy, rather than a teeming city-covered planet of them. The heroes of the setting are those who pick through the ruins of a long-dead civilisation for altruistic, rather than selfish, reasons.
Character Types, Descriptors & Foci in Numenera and TF:P
“I am a [fill in an adjective here] [fill in a noun here] who
[fill in a verb here].
— Numenera Corebook, p24”
Player characters in Numenera are created by taking a Type, and adding a descriptor and focus. There are 3 types, the Glaive (fighter), Jack (trickster/rogue) and the Nano (wizard/cleric/scientist). Each character also gets a descriptor; an adjective such as Strong-Willed, Rugged, Charming or Swift; which gives them a small package of starting abilities and inabilities and some suggestions of how to link the character to the starting adventure. Finally, each character has a focus, which is an extensive list of abilities and special powers, which grow stronger each time the character gains a tier. (You can think of Tiers as like levels in old-school RPGs, but characters gain tiers by discovering usable tech or learning about their world, rather than by killing lots of enemies, D&D-style.) The foci in the Numenera Corebook range from combat disciplines such as “Who Masters Weaponry” to exotic superpowers like “Who Controls Gravity” or “Who Exists Partially Out of Phase”.
The three character Types are pretty much standard fantasy “heroic” archetypes – a strong hero, a clever hero and a “magical” hero. Almost any RPG, tabletop or digital which has exactly three classes will have pretty much these three. Not to say that anything in Numenera is derivative – each of these character types is a Ninth-world spin on the standard trope, and since each character has as Focus there’s no such thing as a generic Numenera character.
Unsurprisingly, almost every transformer in Transformers: Prime fits quite neatly into one of these three archetypes:
The two characters I’ve omitted from this discussion: Optimus Prime and Megatron, the two faction leaders, both embody the classical virtue of excellence or arete. Megatron is a ferocious and powerful warrior, wickedly capable schemer and a competent scientist. Optimus is his match in battle skills, a skilled (but too nice for his own good) strategist and an unmatched cryptographer.
The only character in this line-up who has any ambiguity about where he fits in is Knock Out. As the Decepticon’s chief medic, it could be argued that Knock Out fits into the Nano’s archetype. However, he isn’t that great a scientist, and freely admits (within a minute of his first one screen appearance – episode 10 “Deus Ex Machina”) to not being a very good doctor “I’ve done plenty of bodywork, Starscream, but I’m better at breaking’em than fixing’em.”. Knock Out isn’t exactly a front-line fighter either, preferring to hide behind his tougher partner Breakdown and get in the occasional opportunistic stab. He’s a Jack of all trades, and when he succeeds, it’s because he stays of his toes, and plays up his advantages.
In the third series of Transformers: Prime, when the Autobots storm the Decepticon’s starship, Optimus divides his followers into two groups the “Wreckers” and the “Stealth team”. The plan is that the Wreckers are going to distract the Decepticons by attacking the ship head-on, whilst the Stealth team sneak in to rescue Ratchet. The Wreckers team consists entirely of straight-forward fighters, and the Stealth team entirely of “Jacks”.
Artefacts and Cyphers (and Oddities)
The second series of Transformers: Prime shows the Autobots and Decepticons competing to retrieve lost relics from their home-world which have been scattered on planet Earth. Similarly, characters in Numenera will find that the Ninth World is littered with advanced items that can be used – maybe only once – to the character’s benefit.
Some lost relics can only be used once, and then they are forever ruined or exhausted. In Numenera these are called cyphers:
Cyphers are one-use, cobbled-together bits of technology that characters frequently discover and use…. … Remember that in the Ninth World, cyphers are rarely used for their original, intended function, which is now unknowable.
— Numenera Corebook, p278
Each character can only carry a few cyphers , because they interact with each other in unpredictable ways – emitting various sort of signals or radiation that can interact destructively – harming each other or their carrier. There’s no guarantee that any cypher was made for the purpose that it is now used for: a “grenade” might be a damaged battery from some lost device, a “healing potion” might be a nanomachine-infused nutrient solution from some bizarre biological experiment, or a one-shot burning-ray emitter might have been a welding tool. Who knows? Cyphers can only be used once, but they are easy to come by – pulling apart a hostile automaton once it’s defeated might give you more cyphers than you can carry – making it well worth using a couple to defeat it.
Some ancient devices are more permanent than cyphers, and in Numenera these are called artefacts. These devices could be anything from a force-shield generator, to a belt that grants the power of flight, to a luggage on little wheels that follows its owner around.
Every time an artifact is used it has a chance of its energy being depleted, rendering it inert – although not necessarily useless – a skilled nano might be able to repair or recharge it and use it again.
The depletion mechanic is pretty cool – Numenera is a game where a lot of loot is acquired by players, but between the disposability of cyphers and the possible failure of artefacts after a number of uses, players are encouraged not to hoard their stuff, but to use it when a chance comes, and look for more. This is a direct contrast to Transformers: Prime, wherein the Autobots lock most of their relics in their base, and hardly use them until it’s absolutely necessary. The special stuff is obviously rarer in this setting, but it irks me that after the Autobots have acquired the Apex Armor they leave it in their vault – rather than having someone wear it to every battle. Were it me, I’d wear the indestructibility suit at every chance I get. The only relic in Transformers: Prime that appears to be subject to exhaustion with use is the Forge of Solus Prime: a Deus-ex-machina magic wishing hammer in the hands of a Prime, and just a huge hammer in anyone else’s hands. Once used to repair Optimus Prime from a near-fatal injury the hammer’s power was used up – but it still functioned as a hammer.
A GM looking to find some Artefacts to file off the serial numbers from and insert into a Numenera campaign could do worse than to take inspiration from Transformers: Prime. I’m pretty sure that the Polarity Gauntlet, Resonance Blaster, Liquefier (oops, Rescue Bots reference), Spark Extractor, or Apex Armor would fit into a Numenera campaign without too much difficulty.
There is a third class of exotic item in Numenera, which doesn’t have analogue in Transformers: Prime. Oddities are items created by advanced technologies which have no obvious use to ninth-world people. Either these items are incomplete, broken or just so alien that no-one can figure them out. Examples might be a bauble of synthetic material containing a compass needle that always points to a specific point in the sky, or a stone that changes colour, running through the visible spectrum between dawn and dusk.
In conclusion, there is fertile well of shared inspiration that informs these two not-really-that-similar things I enjoy. It has been a while since I have DM’ed an RPG, and I currently don’t have a group to play with, so it’s not likely that I’ll be running a game of Numenera anytime soon. But if I do find myself at the head of a table, my players shouldn’t be surprised if they acquire a detonation that releases a gas that’s toxic, but only to robots, or a glove that magnetises metallic objects. Maybe someone’ll run a character who Enjoys Explosive Devices, or who Wears a Pretender Shell. The possibilities are endless, and to be honest, I think the more sources of diverse inspiration for advanced technology and general weirdness that come into a game of Numenera, the better.