Three Frameworks to Start Your Numenera Campaign

Published September 10, 2015 by in Adventure, For Gamemasters


The following quote is about the clearest advice GMs get in the core book on what kinds of campaign arcs characters explore in the Ninth World.

“The Ninth World is about discovering the wonders of the worlds that came before it, not for their own sake, but as the means to improve the present and build a future.” Numenera Core Rule Book, pg. 12

Seems a bit broad, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong; I understand the appeal of not packing in too much default structure. After all, one reason we come to RPGs is to enjoy the absolute freedom to tell our stories our way. But Numenera doesn’t have as much working for it as your common fantasy settings do when it comes to comprehensibility. We all know what Orcs and Elves are, and what Paladins and Wizards do. But we don’t have common stories of Margr or Raster or Nanos to draw on when coming up with adventure ideas.

Numenera is deeply in love with its weirdness. It doesn’t want you to have context for anything outside of human settlements, and the result is a world in which GMs have to learn the setting’s creatures, places, and technologies before they can glean easy inspiration for adventure building.

That’s where this article comes in. My goal is to help you start preparing for a campaign, or even just a series of one-shots, by providing frameworks that can focus your search through Numenera’s setting material. By narrowing your campaign to a tighter theme, you’ll more easily be able to focus on the content that will actually see your game table.

Weird of the Week

“In the weeks since we uncovered that bizarre, throbbing membrane beneath the quarry, vivid hallucinations have started sweeping through our town. Anyone who attempts to hurt that thing suffers crippling headaches. We humbly request one of your gifted research teams to help us make sense of this mess.”

In a “Weird of the Week” campaign, you’ll be emulating episodic TV shows like Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps the PCs are employed by The Order of Truth as a sort of “Away Team” to make first contact with weird discoveries. Their ultimate goal is to protect peaceful people from any malicious or dangerous phenomena, and harness beneficial numenera for the greater good of humanity.

This framework lets you pick and choose your favorite places from the setting while hand-waving travel time and survival elements that might slow down the pace toward the next big discovery. For best results, don’t build your adventures to fill your available playtime right up to the edge. It’s better to get closure a little early so that each sitting can be one story, and your two or three part tales can be a special occasion.

This format is also a good way to introduce first time roleplayers to Numenera, or RPGs in general, without forcing a repeated time commitment that might scare a busy player away from the hobby. You could even take a more board game like route in which each player selects from an established stable of character sheets for each session, rather than having a fixed, owned character. Make sure to put a few personality notes on each sheet, and award extra XP to players who play a character consistent to his or her established quirks.

Hexcrawling and City-Building

“On this day, I place the land beyond the Shimmering Range in your care. Go forth in my name, and establish a city at the foot of the Crying Obelisk. Tame this new land for our kingdom, that its lost secrets might be mastered for our greater glory.”

Carving out a kingdom from the untamed wilderness is a popular theme for fantasy campaigns, and there’s no reason you can’t scratch your sandbox kingdom-building itch in the Ninth World. Have a ruler from The Steadfast grant the PCs a parcel of land near one of the unassigned markers from the setting maps. Then come up with a stationary bit of useful numenera to act as the anchor point for the city.

Your job as GM will be to fill dozens of miles of surrounding wilderness with indigenous creatures, bizarre topography, raw resources to gather, and lost structures to explore. Then cut the PCs loose to live and die by their wits. The most important thing to do is to have your factions and phenomena react in ways that make sense for their motivations. If you’re doing it right, the PCs will treat each encounter with care for what they know in the fiction, rather than just as a new element to exploit for game advantages.

This framework is great for a few reasons. First, it provides a place that the PCs will nurture and care about, which generates a lot of free emotional buy-in. Second, it generates fun philosophical questions to answer through play. For example, if you know your subjects can fight off an invading army with a piece of epic numenera, but also know it will irreversibly change them and how they’re seen by other people, is it ethical to insist the artifact be employed? Or will you take your chances with your forces as they are? How your PCs rule will have exciting repercussions in long term play.

A Kept People

“What do I do with tomorrow? How do I go on in life knowing every joy, every sorrow, every challenge was something they engineered for me? And for what? Their study? Their amusement? There’s only one feeling I have that I am sure is wholly my own anymore; I am furious, and I will not be their plaything.”

The Ninth World is full of phenomena that people don’t understand. Perhaps that’s not because the answers are lost to time, but rather that something intelligent is deliberately hiding the truth. Did the ancients of the Eighth World find a better home, and convert Earth into one giant terrarium for study? Or is your planet the galaxy’s most unpredictable reality entertainment, with the PCs unwittingly becoming stars for the dramatic lives they lead?

There’s an obvious arc to this one that still allows the PCs complete freedom. They can begin by just going about normal adventuring, maybe even with a framework that’s completely legitimate on the planet’s surface. Over time, insert more and more alien interference. Perhaps the Eighth Worlders want to see how the PCs will handle an ethical question with powerful numenera, or whether they’re strong enough to defeat an engineered creature.

Eventually, the PCs will uncover the truth. Will the puppetmasters come forward to explain themselves, or try to end the subjects of their now-tainted experiment? Can the PCs rally the Ninth World for war against the Eighth? Or will the PCs meet their captors peacefully, having earned their respect? Such an encounter could be the gateway to further adventure using the Into the Night sourcebook coming later this year!

Conclusion and an Introduction

Hi there! I’m Robert Wiesehan, and this isn’t my only article idea for The Ninth World. My interests lie largely in the area of building bridges between, “This Numenera game sure looks nifty,” and “We’ve made it to the table and are having awesome adventures in The Ninth World!”

This means you probably won’t see me write up any specific foci, cyphers, or creatures, or even new fluff for you to use in your game. Instead, I want to explore how to package up, reinterpret, and engage existing material in practical ways that result in you and your group playing more often, and more easily.

I welcome your comments below. Let me know what you thought of the article, and what other kinds of material you’d like to see on the topic of easing play. You can also hit me up on Twitter, where Numenera is one of a wide variety of topics I tweet about.

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  • James Stouffer

    That’s some very good advice Robert! Thanks.

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  • Aaron Carpenter

    Really liked this article. Numenera captures my imagination but I had a little trouble figuring a campaign concept without the type of driving metaplot you see in, say, The Strange. The “kept people” idea really resonates with me – might give it a shot!

  • Jaren

    I find these kinds of articles are so very useful for this setting. While the world is amazing it’s often difficult to find something solid to latch on to when it comes to telling a story – especially when there is so little to root the player’s experience.

    Thanks for a great write up!