The Alexandrian

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Numenera - Monte Cook GamesBefore we proceed, I want to talk a little about my assumptions here: By default, the process of advancing a tier means that you gain +4 stat points, +1 to an Edge of your choice, +1 Effort, and a skill. (You’ll also pick up extra abilities from your character’s Type, but we’re not going to worry about that for the moment.) For the purpose of these discussions, however, I’m not going to be looking at characters who have dumped all their advancements into becoming hyper-specialized at doing one thing.

For example, I’m going to assume that characters are spreading their Edge boosts around instead of concentrating them all in a single stat. (In practice, I’ll be assuming that your highest Edge will be 1 + ½ your Tier.)

For the purposes of analyzing what characters are really capable of, I’m also going to be bumping up the descriptions of tasks with difficulties of 8+ (for the reasons that I described in Part 1). In practice, we’ll be looking at something like this:

7Impossible without great skill or great effort
8Impossible without great skill or exceptional effort
9A task worthy of tales told for years to come
10A task performed by those who become legends in their own time
11A task worthy of legends that last for lifetimes
12A task that normal humans couldn't consider under any circumstances

(Difficulty 12 is the significant breakpoint here because a person with specialization, the best circumstances in the world, and willing to expend a single level of Effort still couldn’t possibly succeed.)

TIER 1 vs. TIER 3

Our general discussion has gone a long way towards establishing our baseline expectations for a Tier 1 character: They’ve got Edge 1 in one or two ability scores and they’ve got one level of Effort. If we imagined a “Tier 0” character who lacked any Edge or Effort, the Tier 1 guy can last a little longer and can also accomplish things that are a little bit tougher. We might think of him as being just a little bit better than a normal Joe, but the types of things he would consider “normal” or “routine” haven’t really shifted.

Now, let’s compare that starting character with a character who has achieved Tier 3: They’ve got Effort 3 and their high Edge is 3. They’ve probably also picked up at least one specialization.

The upper limit for this character in general has now become Difficulty 9: “A task worthy of tales told for years to come.” They don’t have to be skilled at it; they don’t need a great set of tools or perfect circumstances. They just focus their Effort on it and they’ll do stuff that people in the local aldeia will still be talking about a decade from now.

In their area of specialization, however, things are obviously even better: Without expending any effort at all, they can achieve things normal people would consider impossible (difficulty 8). Even under the worst conditions (+2 difficulty), they’re still capable of accomplishing stuff that average people would find intimidating under normal conditions.

And their absolute upper limit is even better: Specialization (-2), effort (-3), and a couple of assets (-2) means that they’re already capable of accomplishing difficulty 13 tasks… they’ve already blown the cap off our difficulty scale.

What type of stuff can they succeed at 50% of the time? Well, in general they can succeed at Intimidating tasks (stuff normal people almost never succeed at) 50% of the time by expending effort. If they’re specialized and have favorable conditions, they can achieve the impossible 50% of the time.

Notably, however, the stuff they consider routine doesn’t accelerate as quickly: Instead of just the stuff average people consider routine (difficulty 0 tasks), they also consider stuff people consider simple (difficulty 1 tasks) routine. Perhaps more telling, the “standard” difficulty of the game is now routine for them.

Okay, let’s use our touchstones: Even if these characters aren’t specifically trained at a task, they are capable of crafting any numenera item in the game; they can climb across smooth ceilings; and they are likely to possess knowledge very few people possess. If it’s their specialty, then they possess “completely lost knowledge” and they can do whatever the equivalent of climbing a wall of glass without any equipment is.

TIER 3 vs. TIER 6

So what we’ve rapidly established is that the small numbers of the Numenera system rapidly accumulate huge shifts in power and ability.

A Tier 3 character can generally perform the seemingly impossible and will, in their specialty, be capable of feats that will literally make them legends.

Because that top end already strains our ability to really comprehend what they’re capable of, the big conceptual shift between Tier 3 and Tier 6 is in the routine: With Edge 4 in their specialty, tasks of standard difficulty have become routine. More notably, that which normal people consider difficult they automatically consider simple.

(Pause and think about that for a moment: Think about the stuff that you find really difficult to do. The stuff that gives you a sense of satisfaction when you complete them successfully. Tier 6 characters consider that stuff trivial.)

The other end of the scale becomes simply staggering: Effort 6 expands their general range of ability (without skill or favorable circumstance) to difficulty 12 tasks; i.e., stuff that normal humans couldn’t even consider doing. Combine that with specialization (-2) and favorable circumstances (-2) and you’re up at difficulty 16… which is just completely off the human scale.

How far off the human scale? Well, the difference between “task worthy of legends that last for lifetimes” and what these characters are able to achieve in their specialization is the difference between a task the “most people can do most of the time” and “normal people almost never succeed”. (If there was a world where every high school basketball player had the skills of Michael Jordan, these guys would be the Michael Jordans of that world.)

Our touchstones have already been rendered largely useless, but consider this: Tier 6 characters who are not specifically skilled in climbing are nevertheless capable of expending a little effort and climbing featureless glass walls 45% of the time.

In an area of specialization (-2) they’ll have a 15% chance of knowing a piece of completely forgotten knowledge without spending any pool points. If they expend maximum effort, their chance of knowing something which (I must repeat) is completely forgotten rises to a mind-boggling 70%.


My big take-away from this is that by the point you reach Tier 6, Numenera is no longer a game about characters wandering through inexplicable technological ruins that they are incapable of understanding. The characters are capable of easily creating original pieces of numenera to rival even the most powerful technology of the Ancients and they almost certainly understand many of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos they inhabit.

(And if you’re still looking for a way to calibrate your understanding of the highest tiers, consider this: If a Tier 6 character was actually hyper-focused with Edge 6 (+3), a specialized skill (+2), proper tools (+1), and favorable circumstances (+1) they would consider even tasks that normal people consider “impossible without skill or great effort” to be routine.)

It looks to me like the turning point probably comes somewhere around Tier 4: Tier 1 you’re slightly better than the average person. Tier 2 you’re a highly talented expert (or Big Damn Hero depending on your perspective). Tier 3 is where you hit Legendary status. Tier 4 is where I think you have to start looking at a phase change in the types of stories your characters are getting involved with unless you want to suffer a dissonance with what the mechanics are telling you.

One notable thing to keep in mind, though: Although Numenera rapidly expands the high-end of potential, the low-end of surety doesn’t expand as quickly. The PCs may become incredibly potent demigods by the standards of their age; but they also remain distinctly mortal ones.

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8 Responses to “Numenera – Calibrating Your Expectations – Part 2: Comparing the Tiers”

  1. Muton says:

    You’ve made some comments that are antonymous to each other.

    “Okay, let’s use our touchstones: Even if these characters aren’t specifically trained at a task, they are capable of crafting any numenera item in the game; they can climb across smooth ceilings; and they are likely to possess knowledge very few people possess. If it’s their specialty, then they possess “completely lost knowledge” and they can do whatever the equivalent of climbing a wall of glass without any equipment is.”

    Climbing a vertical glass wall in my mind as a GM would be difficulty 9 at least, more likely 10. Without any equipment means no assets, so the best a Tier 3 character could achieve, assuming specialization in Climbing and focused solely on Might Edge (3), is a -5 modifier. So that means a resource expenditure of at least 4 Might points; for many characters at Tier 3 that represents 20-25% of their Might pool just to have a 30% chance of success. And again that assumes the character is highly specialized in climbing, spending their XP on absolutely nothing else, so they are much more limited in all other interactions; socially they will struggle, in combat they are likely to struggle, etc. Personally, I don’t have a problem with a Tier 3 character pulling off a feat like this if that’s how they’re specialized; Numenera is a game of weird and wondrous things after all. But you can be certain that at least in my game that character will face a mix of situations, some they are optimized for and some they are not, and they will struggle.

    You also discuss having “Assets of -2” modifiers very casually. There is a big misconception I think in Numenera that these should be as common as say a +2 longsword would be to a mid-level DnD character; in the game I ran my players, who went from Tier 1 to Tier 5, were lucky to find one. An asset of -2 difficulty is more akin to a +8 or +9 equivalent weapon in DnD; exceedingly rare except in extreme circumstances. I gave out two or three of these to my party and in retrospect that was too many; in the future I plan to give them only when the story allows for something truly unique and wonderful.

    Another example is your comment about “if they aren’t specifically trained they are capable of crafting any Numenera item in the game”. That is not correct. If they are not trained then they gain no training or specialization modifiers, so no +2. Let’s assume Int. Edge 3 and 3 levels of Effort, so 4 Int spent in crafting, and they attempt to craft an Item Level 10 item. So this player somehow finds the right components to make an item, in and of itself a feat done mostly through roleplaying. The difficulty to craft a Level 10 item goes from 10 (impossible) to 7, so he needs to roll a 21 on a D20. Again impossible. So let’s say he’s found some special tools that provides an asset of +2. For it to provide a +2 asset that thing should be automated to some degree and have blueprints to manufacture. So now this character has found the correct inputs, has an automated manufacturing tool, and he applies his powerful intellect to the task, and it’s now a Tier 5. He still has only a 30% chance of success at crafting the item. Does that make sense? Sure. But in order to do that he had to find the right components, find the right knowledge, and find the right tools to make this item, tools that are not just readily available. Hell that’s an entire multi-session adventure, with the end goal of crafting a powerful Numenera item! Makes sense to me.

    Overall I think your analysis is good, but it has flaws and falls into the trap of every high level analysis in gaming I’ve ever seen. You’re missing the concept of resource expenditure (spending 3 levels of effort is significant; dropping 25% of your might on a climb check with a 1 in 3 chance of success is not a good idea when you’re being shot at), your example is a bit cavalier when you casually say they can pull of stuff without equipment yet when your calculations clearly include asset bonuses, you’re glossing over a bit the roleplaying challenge of finding said assets in order to facilitat these checks (if you’re giving them out as a GM then you’re making the game a bit easier than it’s designed to be) and you’re ignoring the fact that this character in your example is entirely min-maxed for a specific purpose, which in my opinion is just fine for them to pull off what they’re doing if that’s the case, because the challenges they face that they are not optimized for will be that much harder.

  2. Muton says:

    My last comment came off harsh; sorry I write that way and didn’t intend it. The overall goal of my comment to you was that it was a good analysis but I would still call several conclusions of yours into question because there are other things to consider such as the opportunity cost of specializing versus having a broad range of abilities, the difficulty of getting powerful asset bonuses, and what using 3 levels of effort costs a player; even with Edge that’s not insignificant, it amounts to what would be in game terms a heroic effort to achieve.

  3. Brandon Perry says:

    Thank you so much for this, I’m more grateful than you know.

    –Brandon P.

  4. Justin Alexander says:


    1. The difficulty of climbing a glass wall is, in fact, 10. (It’s in the core rulebook.) Thank you for confirming my math on that one.

    2. Assets stack. You don’t need a “-2 Asset” (I don’t think that’s actually something that possible under the RAW of Numenera), you just need two assets. (Note that that system caps you at a max of two assets.) It should also be noted that assets are not necessarily items or tools. The asset mechanic includes favorable circumstances and conditions, help from an ally, prepatory actions, major effects, and any similar aids.

    3. Thank you for confirming my math regarding the creation of Level 10 numenera by Tier 3 characters.

    4. I very specifically differentiated between “routine” and “what they are capable of”. Thank you for agreeing with me that there is a difference between those two things.

    So, other than your inadequate understanding of how assets work in Numenera, you’ve done a good job here. Thanks for agreeing with my conclusions in every point. I’m unclear what you consider “antonymous”, though. 😉

  5. Joakim Petersson says:

    I’m going to run a campaign soon and I’ve been thinking a lot about the end-game balance after reading this blog post. For me, the insane powerlevel of T4+ characters is not really what I want from Numenera. I want a more down to earth experience and less of a supers game. Effort seems to be the main culprit in making the characters into superheroes. I’ve been thinking about limiting it in some way, maybe so that the players can only get it on T1, T2, T4 and T6, making the maximum effort level 4 instead of 6. What do you think of that, and do you have any other ideas on how to rebalance the end-game into something less over-the-top?

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    I haven’t played enough of Numenera at the high tiers to really get a good gut feeling for this stuff, but I would toss out the idea of limiting Effort to the 1 + the character’s Edge in a given pool. A hyper-specialized character could still end up being able to apply a ton of Effort, but they’re going to be kind of a one-trick-pony that burns out very rapidly.

    My main concern with simply limiting Effort is that you’re probably screwing Glaives pretty hard.

    High-tier glaive abilities have costs that are largely negated through their Edge. This means that glaives get to put all of their points into spending Effort to do totally awesome shit (both in and out of combat).

    High-tier nano abilities are a lot cooler than high-tier glaive abilities, but they also cost twice as many points (blasting through Edge and burning up their primary pools).

    Like I said, my analysis here could be completely off base because it’s not relying heavily enough on actual play. But I suspect what will happen if you take high-level Effort away from everybody is that the glaives no longer get to do awesome stuff while the nanos do.

    As an alternative, I might look at an E6-like approach where the PCs top out at Tier 3 but can continue spending XP to gain additional skills. (Broaden their capability instead of heightening it.)

  7. m1 says:

    I use these HR:

    1- when a charcter reach a new tier doesn’t get also a new benefit
    2- before choosing the same benefit again a character must have reached 6 different benefits

    it works :)

  8. Toussaint says:

    Thanks a lot for this game system analyse, it’s really interesting to get those types of statistics, it should be included in the core book !

    Best Regards

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