Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/31/tabletop-review-in-strange-aeons-lovecraftian-numenera/
What a great piece to talk about on Halloween, eh? In Strange Aeons merges my favorite game of 2013, Numenera, with my favorite game of all time, Call of Cthulhu. Of course, depending on how you have been running/playing Numenera, you might have already done this. After all, both games are essentially ones of discovery over combat. Both games have player characters continually finding strange relics from the past to help them get through adventures. In Numenera‘s case, these items are ciphers – technological relics from the previous eight worlds. In Call of Cthulhu, it’s spells from a bygone age or alien technology that lets your brain travel across time and space. In both games you will encounter strange creatures, many of which are hard to describe because they are so alien to our vocabulary and imagination. In Numenera these are simply life forms that exist a billion years into the future. In Call of Cthulhu, they are horrible monstrosities for whom mankind is not even worth paying attention to at best and a minor distraction or lunch at worst. Who is to say however, that some of these mundane but bizarre creatures that populate the Ninth World are not Mythos creatures that the current world takes for granted or that could have even evolved or changed over time? Perhaps even the return of humanity to Earth is simply an experiment by the Fungi from Yuggoth or the machinations of an Elder God? Numenera is what you make of it after all, and the more you look at, the easier it is to see how a game of cosmic horror and a game of futuristic discovery and wonder can easily overlap to give gamers a truly unique experience.
In Strange Aeons is ten pages of bringing Lovecraftian creatures, themes and moods to the Numenera setting (the cover page and a page of recommended reading makes twelve). The first four pages are devoted to discussing how adding Mythos elements changes the Numenera setting. In truth, it’s not that much of a change. The Ninth World is already populated with strange alien technology, creatures and locations. So it’s not as if you are truly adding new elements to the setting. Instead, it’s more about how the Keeper presents the Ninth World to the player. Present new items not just with a sense of wonder but with sense of foreboding. After all, that cipher might shoot out a rainbow of glitter, or it could be a portal to a dimension of sentient screams that have long sought a way into our world. Maybe that odd box houses a glowing orb that makes anything it touches turn into chicken parmesan…or maybe it’s a puzzle box built by Phillip Lemarchand. That building players are exploring in hopes to find a cure to a virus plaguing a village might indeed hold a cure or even have been a hospital for a previous civilization. It might also have been the temple for the Great Old One Glakki. YOU DON’T KNOW because the Ninth World is caked with a billion years of unimaginables and so exploration and discovery may have a price your characters (and their sanity) were not expecting to pay.
Storywise, the GM/Keeper has to set the stage for this variant of Numenera. Describe things with a slightly ominous narrative. How do you know you can trust those strangers in the hamlet a few miles off? Perhaps the angles of that building cause a headache if you look at it for too long thanks to the non-Euclidian geometry in its makeup. Now that doesn’t mean everything is evil or out to cause character death. You just want to keep the paranoia level higher than usual. After all, a building COULD have non-Euclidian geometry, but that alone doesn’t make it evil. Maybe a race of benevolent cyborg parrots built it to travel dimensions. They key again is YOU DON’T KNOW, making the usual Numenera themes of discovery and exploration more Press Your Luck than Mysterious Cities of Gold. Do the players get big bucks or do they land on a whammy? A whammy in Lovecratian Numenera more than likely has limbs jutting out at strange angles, eyestalks that shoot out acid covered teeth and more tongues than mouths. The game is now risk vs. reward. Well, it always WAS, but not the risk is far more apparent.
The hardest aspect of Lovecraftia to pull off in Numenera may be the sense of being alone and insignificant in the universe. After all, there have been eight previous worlds and a billion years of history on this version of Earth. Obviously there must be something important about this ball of mud and water that has kept it going with all these different societies and alien races that come to visit. Think about it though. What happened to those previous eight worlds? Perhaps it is mankind’s horrible destiny to propagate, flourish and then suddenly be struck down by crossing a line into experiences and realms they simply were not meant to traverse into. Perhaps each of the eight civilizations were struck down due to a cosmic alignment of the stars. Perhaps the rise and slumber of Great Cthulhu is as cyclical as the seasons or winds. What happens when a player realizes that for all these previous worlds have accomplished, they are now but dust in the wind with no one to remember their deeds or names? What happens when they realize no matter what they do, their race is fated to die as horribly and suffer eternally in the same fashion as all those that came before them? That’s some heavy stuff and great roleplaying potential. Will a character strive to make a difference or will they collapse before the obvious weight of time and space that now rests solely on their shoulders?
In terms of actual stats and mechanics, this short little supplement provides a decent amount of content in that regard. There’s a new optional Sanity mechanic where you’ll lose points from your Intellect pool but also potentially gain permanent bonuses to your Intellect Edge. It’s a neat little system that simulates the Cthulhu Mythos trait from Call of Cthulhu (CM goes up, Max Sanity goes down) without adding any new stats or something to scribble in on those character sheets of yours. There are a lot of options for dealing with Sanity and its slow erosion in Lovecraftian Numenera. You are also given two new descriptors for characters (Mad and Doomed), which has some unique bonuses and hindrances. Both of which have some special GM intrusion effects which can really suck as the GM is sure to spring these at the worst possible time for the sake of exciting narration but the bonuses do make up for it. Plus, wouldn’t it be fun to play a madman on occasion? You’re also given stats for Deep Ones, the Great Race of Leng (Yithians), Mi-Go and even a Shoggoth! Of course, some players may find rapey fish folk to be mundane considering some of the truly weird life forms on the Ninth World, but it is what it is. Finally, In Strange Aeons gives some examples of reskinning creatures from the Bestiary to be more ominous and Lovecraftian.
All in all, In Strange Aeons is another truly incredible release for Numenera. I really only have three or four minor issues with the piece. I’m surprised that this wasn’t a section in the core rulebook. Perhaps as an appendix? I also didn’t see the point in the sidebar talking about Lovecraft’s racist tendencies. Yes, it’s a shame such a brilliant man was an overwhelmed with hate and fear of things he didn’t understand in a manner more mundane that those in his characters, but what was really the point of bringing that up? It would be like writing a D&D supplement and then bringing up some negative character trait of Gygax and/or Arneson. Finally, but this is highly subjective – I guess I feel three dollars for ten pages of content is a bit much in this day and age of crazy PDF deals for tabletop content. Again, all of these are minor things and it doesn’t keep the piece from being something I can highly recommend to fans of Cthulhu gaming or Numenera.
Now if, like me, you’ve already been running Numenera with a Mythos bent, then you probably won’t get much out of this except the stat blocks for creatures or the new descriptors. Much of this will be common sense or aspects you’ve already implemented into your Ninth World campaign. In that case, you really don’t need to pick this up unless you want the aforementioned pages on mechanics or if you’re just being a digital completionist for the system. For everyone else though, you’ll want to pick this up for the new layer this piece can add to a Numenera game and for the ideas and mechanics it contains. In Strange Aeons is simply a wonderful addition to the Numenera system and proof that a short supplement can still be an awesome or even a game-changing one.