I already game-mastered 4.5 sessions of Numenera.

An issue I constantly ran into was: how much of the numenera can be understood, especially by a specialized nano with 2 assets (meaning: the most knowledgeable character possible)?

One demonstrative example from an adventure I found is:

You enter a large cavern. The walls are made of unnaturally smooth stone or synth. In the center of the room stands a large ring of the same metal, 2 meters in diameter. A thin membrane vibrates inside it under seemingly strong tension but without actually touching the ring. As you draw closer, you notice the air, the ground, even the walls vibrating, humming in unison with the device.

My intention, coming from D&D and new to Numenera, would have been: Disturbing the device intensified the humming, breaking the membrane makes insect-like beings emerge from the ring like from a portal. Or turning the device towards a crack in the wall widens the crack so they can pass through. Something that would just be a magic portal in D&D.

I always want to treat 'understanding the numenera' like 'investigating what it does': The PC can find out that the vibrations only go in one direction, that the device can be turned, that there seems to be something behind the membrane that causes the humming, etc.

What my players want is 'why is this here, what is it for, what is it made of, can I take the source of power, how can there be something behind it, can I understand the portal technology, can I take the vibrating element from it and attach it do my weapon'.

They want to treat numenera like cars and nanos as physics professor/car mechanics. They think that they should be able to understand what cogs are for what purpose and how to break or alter the mechanism.

For me, Numenera is even more magic than D&D magic. In D&D, wizards can understand what a curse might be placed for, to keep someone out or something in, to make sure only the worthy can enter etc. In Numenera, even this is an unknowable factor.

But what is the understanding skill good for then? Understanding Man-made contraptions from salvaged numenera? Just identifying bits to use as ciphers?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Apr 22, 2019 at 8:19
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know what is supposed to be unclear here. In many games with knowledge-like skills there are rules about what character may or may not know. Relevant rules for this game would be a good answer. Lack of a clear cut rule would be an answer, too. OP even gave specific example, if all them rules are too complicated to put in answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Apr 22, 2019 at 10:25

1 Answer 1


As much as you want to

why is this here, what is it for, what is it made of, can I take the source of power, how can there be something behind it, can I understand the portal technology, can I take the vibrating element from it and attach it do my weapon

You can answer all of those things, or not. It is up to you really. Their Numenera knowledge can only go so far as you decide it should.

The knowledge about numenera comes from learning history, myths and legends, sharing common evidence of how things work, reading about it on old tomes and devices, noticing similarities in how it works. Maybe even looking at the flow of energy around (or inside) the device.

Their knowledge isn't Identify Item, or Item History or even, Object Reading. But an inner insight of how thing are supposed to work. If this insight comes from reading about a similar item, from disassembling the same item before, or even from reading a manual about how to construct that item, it is merely flavor that both you and the player can come up during the game.

Keep in mind that the system allows characters to disassemble numenera, and also create new ones. Look up Short and Long Term Benefits on Expending Experience Points (Core Rulebook, pg.111), and you will notice that you don't even require any knowledge about numenera to create new numenera:

For example, a character who wants to explore a submerged location has several numenera components, and he spends 2 XP to cobble together a device that lets him breathe underwater. This gives him the ability for a considerable length of time, but not permanently—the device might work for only eight hours. Again, the story and the logic of the situation dictate the parameters.


In many ways, the long-term benefits a character can gain by spending XP are a means of integrating the mechanics of the game with the story. Players can codify things that happen to their characters (or that they want to have happen to their characters) by talking to the GM and spending 3 XP.


Artifact: The PC creates an artifact that has a power of his choosing. If the item is fairly simple, the GM can skip the crafting details and just say that after a period of time, the PC creates it. For an item that significantly alters gameplay—granting the character vast telepathic powers or giving him the ability to teleport at will—the GM might require difficult rolls, a considerable amount of time, and rare, hard-to-find components and materials.

But I personally, as GM, would define how complex this new device could be based on the character's knowledge about numenera. Things like a power armor could be done only by a character with specialization and two assets, as those significantly change their gameplay. But a laser gun should require only time and experience.

  • \$\begingroup\$ we settled for treating it like magic - they can understand only what is made by "humans", meaning they can determine why the humans built (or cobbled together) the device - they cannot understand machinery that was left behind by the prior worlds and never toughed by a human \$\endgroup\$
    – billdoor
    May 7, 2019 at 9:02

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