Races in Numenera & the Cypher System

I love Numenera, but using a descriptor for your race bothers me. It keeps non-humans from having “regular” descriptors like charming, rugged, or lonely. And if they really want to lean into their race, they lose their choice of focus, like murders or masters insects. What can you do?

Numenera Dread Unicorn Games

Don’t use the Racial Descriptor

This is the “Doctor it hurts when I do this,” “Then stop,” solution and the one found in the Cypher System rulebook. You’re PC is a varjellen because you say they are, and you get to use any descriptor you want. You don’t get the varjellen abilities in the core book, you just use your descriptor powers.

I like this for Numenera if you make it optional, and you let your players use racial foci without the descriptor. Some players like to lean into their race.

For the Cypher System, it’s fine if it works for you, but if a player wants to really embody a race, I’ll have to look elsewhere.

Two Descriptors

I’ve heard Monte Cook and others say, “just use two descriptors for each player.” The idea is everyone gets two, and now you can be that lonely mutant you’ve always pined for. After all, real people have more than one adjective.

I like this simple change. I don’t think this makes PC’s too powerful. The descriptor does not scale with tier, so the worst effect would be a little more resilient 1st-tier PCs, not a bad thing at all.

Racial Flavors

You use flavors, from the Cypher System rulebook, to represent a race. This lets a player really lean into their golthiar character. A flavor lets the player choose to add a flavor ability, instead of a standard type ability. Just like type abilities, flavor abilities become available by tier. A player could choose to be a little more golthiarish, and a little bit less glaivish. Those are words.

The character can have access to regular descriptors and foci, yet still be cool because of their race. This allows the player to choose how much they lean into their race. One player might have one race flavor ability, the other three.

The downside is this is work. Unlike the other two solutions we talked about here, you need to come up with a few new abilities for each tier. You can always use type abilities from a variety of types.

I’ve seen a great example of using flavors for races for Cypher System fantasy in Megan Tolentino’s Fantasy Ancestries.

Slithik from The Sun Below adventures for Numenera; Dread Unicorn Games

I put in a racial descriptor and foci in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady. Maybe I’ll put in a racial flavor in The Sun Below: That’s How the Light Gets In. No promises, but I’m kind of excited to do one.

Talk to the Fish: Instant Adventure — Part II

Last time in Planning to Improv: Make Your Own Instant Adventure, Part I, we looked at what goes into an Instant Adventure. In Part III, we look at GM Intrusions for your Instant Adventures.

Here’s the example using Numenera. Talk to the Fish


Ignore the references to mooks in Numenera unless you have Dread Unicorn Game’s The Sun Below: City on the Edge, or The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady. If you don’t know how to run an rpg montage, see the Sun Below adventures, or the Blogger’s Roundtable of Doom: The Montage.


Liskal is a stunted machine intelligence that would like to repair itself. Its mind is truncated by being forced to exist in our dimension. In the past its mind was transdimensional, but that was a long time ago. Liskal needs a sphere from Le Temple De Toadue to start to reclaim its own mind. It can’t go itself, but it can teleport people. Which is where the players come in.


  • Liskal wants the sphere of night.
  • The sphere is at Le Temple De Toadue.
  • The Toad King regards this sphere as a prized possession. The Toad King can’t remember his own name.
  • Klaru, a Nibovian Wife is in the temple. The Toad King fell for her tricks once, not again. Yet he lets her stay.
  • There are 3 Toad Queens. Queens Deepi, Onea, and Sloomah.
  • Sloomah wants the moon pool fixed. If the PCs do that, she can help convince The Toad King to give up the sphere of night.

Starting Point

The PCs have heard of the giant stone fish, high in the mountains. As they approach, they see blinking lights inside the mouth. Inside is a busted up synth column with 2 shins per PC strewn about.

Wrap Up

The PCs acquire the sphere of night, either through force of arms or by enlisting Queen Sloomah’s help. They bring it back to Liskal, who awards them each 15 shins and a cypher.

Future adventures: If you like, Liskal is not done, and you can use the machine mind to teleport the PCs all over the ninth world and beyond as it slowly builds itself up, piece by hard to get piece.


  1. Toadling servant of Queen Sloomah. Will try to take PCs to the Queen.
  2. Moon Pool Power device. It’s a head-sized green gelatinous egg that glows.
  3. Dead explorer with a detonation (desiccating) cypher. Journal’s last entry: “I got away from the Toad King, now I just have to survive his damned poison.” If found in the fish, it will mention teleporting on “a fool’s errand for a machine.”

Making Instant Adventure Notes:

Each node should have a way for the PCs to interact with it. A person is either at a place or will find the PCs. A location should have something to do there.

What Not To Do

I ran an Instant Adventure using 13th Age rules, and had three “people” (a nasty cultist and two devils) that could find the PCs. And an item that could summon a really nasty devil as a key. I put all four in the secret temple location, and it was a mess. Not every person who wants to find the PCs has to show up at the same time. Doh!

How to Encourage Roleplaying

Bloggers Roundtable of DOOM!

Lex Starwalker asked a group of Cypher System bloggers to discuss various topics in roleplaying games. He asked James August Walls, Marc Plourde, Scott Robinson, and me, to all address the same roleplaying topics. Lex himself would chime in as well. For January, we all get to respond to the following question:

gold drama mask“How would you, as GM, encourage roleplaying in a player who doesn’t roleplay as much as you’d like, whether it’s roleplaying with NPCs, being more descriptive in combat, or referring to themselves in the third person? If you want to take the roleplaying at your table to the next level, how do you get your players on board?

Before I start pontificating on my own ideas, I thought I’d share what my players said when I asked them the same question:

Drama Masks 1Leslie said I think there are two things that made me feel comfortable testing the role playing waters – and here role playing means exactly that, playing the role of a character vs. playing the RPG game (which I’ve done for years).

First, having other players that do it really helps. This group made role playing the characters the norm. This created positive pressure without me feeling like “I had to” in order to enjoy the session. Its the best kind of peer pressure.

The GM did a great job of creating “space” at the table for characters to be played. It was rewarded not only socially, but mechanically in the game through incentives that were meaningful, but not critical to me being successful as a player.

Drama Masks 2Matthew (who has just started GMing Numenera) said Learn what each player finds motivating for playing in character, and what takes them out of it. Then you can play to various strengths and avoid those detractors. Does a player find the grind of dungeon crawling boring? Does counting and calculating costs to perform actions boggle them and take them out of character? Does a player withdraw when their skillset isn’t useful for the game? Add specific moments that are personal for each character, to bring someone back into character.

After my all of one day GMing, I’ve noticed that different characters are more interested in certain subplots than others, and I’ll work to include those characters more into the subplots they like.

Drama Masks 3James (who is also an Edge of the Empire GM) said Be an encouraging GM. That is, a good GM never says “no” or “you’re wrong” to a player. If you want roleplaying and creativity from your players, you encourage them to make things up, and if those ideas aren’t quite up to snuff, you roll your own creativity into it and help the player make their idea better… even if you’re totally going to murder them all later anyway. 🙂

I had my players posing as repair workers on a ship they were thinking about stealing. They learned that the ship had a backup control center hidden off the bridge, and they’d need to find and disable it before they could steal the ship. One player was having a hard time getting into the RP aspects as she searched for clues as to where it might be, and I kept encouraging her to just roleplay any idea she wanted for how she’d find the hidden location. Finally she went with “I see a big red line on the floor going down the hallway from the bridge into a particular room.”

Now, obviously, this isn’t the most “plausible” way to find a secret bridge, but I ran with it, and basically “covered” for the idea. “Ah yes,” I said, “with your thermal goggles down, you see a red glow, highlighting a suspiciously warm series of deck plates leading to an otherwise innocuous looking cabin. It seems a large number of energy conduits are routing from the bridge to here.”

Bottom line, there should be no bad ideas.

crying maskNicole (who also GMs from time to time) said If you hope for your players to rp, then rp your NPCs as well! Hardly a player can resist to answer in character, when an NPC addresses them in first-person speech, modified voice, mannerisms of shaking the head and an obvious lisp.

gold drama maskWriting a gaming blog is like GMing. Just listen to your players. The big stuff having been said, I’ll just add a few ideas:

For me system matters. Highly crunchy rpgs with minimal support for storytelling engage the part of my brain that used to do computer programming all day. I find myself thinking about rules, tables, and numbers. I find it much easier to roleplay as a player and as a GM in more storytelling focused rpgs, such as Numenera. As someone whose played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, I’m very happy to see games like 13th Age, Dungeon World, and 5E that support storytelling.

There is no one right way to play an RPG. You’ll never get everyone to roleplay at the same level. Some players are less comfortable improving than others. Some may be worried that they will “do it wrong.” Others just haven’t come up with an idea they think is useful. Encourage, model, but don’t force.

Happy gaming!

Making it Matter in Numenera, Part III


Previously we talked about making what happens in your game matter to your players by making things personal, and then we talked about letting your players tell you what’s important and how to use the old reoccurring mastermind trick.

This time we’ll talk about factions. Groups of people who have their own agendas and have plots and plans in motion.

Factions are useful in a lot of ways.

World Building and Continuity

For one thing factions help with building the world in your players minds and with continuity. If your players keep bumping into The University of Doors, The Order of Truth, the Convergence, and other factions, your version of the Ninth World comes alive with the give and take of organizations and movements bigger than the adventure you are running. It’s a big world out there, and the PCs aren’t the only movers and shakers in it.

Anchoring PCs to the world

Factions can create ties to player characters. If a glaive in your party has a backstory of being in an order of bodyguards to Aeon Priests, that player is just begging you to run adventures that include the Order of Truth. If not, you can invite them into such an organization after an impressive performance that aligns them to the order. Give them a badge or amulet that shows they belong.

En Garde

Factions are great adversaries. The party may have defeated one plot from the Convergence, but the Convergence can always be relied to up the ante next time. The organization itself become the reoccurring villain.

The Amber Papacy

The biggest faction in the Ninth World are the Aeon Priests and their Order of Truth. They can be a big help to the characters, and may act as patrons. But what of the ties between the Order of Truth and the Angulan Knights? How does that sit with a mutant character? Are there factions within the Order of Truth who support mutant rights? Factions within factions?

king and queenFor the Queen!

The Steadfast is full of monarchies, all of which contain factions. Are the PCs acting for the Queen of Navarene? One of her enemies?

Factions with Faces

Players won’t react strongly to abstract factions. A faction needs a face. Use NPCs that you roleplay to represent the faction. For examples, check out the People of Renown at the back of MCG’s The Ninth World Bestiary. What if Magistrix Nelgadara tries to recruit a player character into the Convergence? If the PC refuses to go along, will the Magistrix use him as a double agent? And what if you then throw the players into a Convergence scheme, such the Three Sanctums adventure from the core book?

Watch your players. If they react strongly to a faction, think of ways to bring it into your adventures. If the faction matters to them, then the adventure with that faction will matter to them.

Good gaming!

See Also:

Making it Matter in Numenera, Part II

In Making it Matter, last time we talked about making it personal. This time we cover letting your players tell you what matters and the old recurring mastermind trick.

Throne Room
Art by Justin Wyatt

Let the players tell you what’s important. This is a bit of improvisational game mastering. Listen to your players. If you hear a lot of table chatter about a town, an NPC, or anything else in the game world, make it a key part of your games. If the players are always going on about Qi, make Qi the setting for a good number of your adventures. If the very thought of the Jaekels of Aras makes them ready to smash heads, use the animalistic pirates as villains every so often.

If you have a player who can’t get enough of their pet or a favorite NPC, use that it to tie the character to an adventure. The loyal Seski runs through the portal. The favorite innkeeper vanishes leaving clues of a involvement with in a plot about to engulf the PCs home base.

Remember, it’s not wrong if the players fixate on something in your world you haven’t planned on. It’s awesome! They are telling you what they find engaging. Go with it.

The Reoccurring Mastermind who always gets away to start trouble again. Despite being a gaming cliche, it can still be effective. Over and over again the players confront the evil mastermind, and over and over again she gets away. In a world with teleportation cyphers this isn’t hard.

Every time she gets away, the players might be just that much more invested in the game.Players can obsess on how to finally bring her down. The trick is to make the characters feel she won’t get away forever. It may be impossible to stop her, but the player characters are used to doing the impossible!

One trick is to have the major threat be able to teleport only to their lair. This way, they can always get away, until the characters track them down. In The Sun Below: City on the Edge, the King of the Praithians has just such a power. When the characters finally confront him in his throne room, his teleportation power can’t save him.

Or give it a twist — the enemy who got away has grown to appreciate the player characters. Perhaps she will aid them in a future adventure, which could confuse the players wonderfully. Will they trust the healing cyphers that come from the woman who tried to stake them in front of the Iron Wind?

Or the old enemy could have run afoul of a new and bigger enemy. Their old nemesis begs for help from the characters. If they refuse, the new enemy is becomes stronger and more bold. If the accept, they have created an interesting alliance. Where will it lead?

See Also: