I am the GM of a new Numenera campaign. One of my players is a mystical nano who phases in and out of reality. Although this hasn't come up yet in play, I suspect that this character's skills will make identifying all the numenera in the game trivial. Since exploration and the unknown are an important part of the Ninth World, I'm concerned this will be a big downer for us.

The character begins play being specialized in identifying numenera. They also have a book about numenera, which I suspect I would treat as an asset when identifying numenera.

Am I understanding correctly how easy identifying numenera can be?

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    \$\begingroup\$ By the way... Are you sure that identifying items will really take the fun out of them? Discovering things is usually more interesting than failing to discover things, in my experience; Mysteries can be interesting, but only when you're working on unraveling them, or when they have a visible impact on the situation you're dealing with; An unidentifiable inventory item satisfies neither of those requirements. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Apr 13, 2017 at 22:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe - No. I am not sure at all. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14, 2017 at 1:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ One minor note regarding assets, not fit for its own answer, is that assets aren't always automatic. In the case of a book, it's not a quick reference. It requires extra time (half an hour or double the base time, whichever is more, core, p.82, "Book.") to make use of this asset. If you don't have the time, you can't use the asset. And if you DO have the time, then the GM shouldn't fret letting them use the asset. That's what it's there for. If you have a specific numenera you wanna keep secret, use an intrusion to mess up the study. \$\endgroup\$
    – Longspeak
    Apr 15, 2017 at 19:19

2 Answers 2


Yes and no. It depends on what they're identifying.

It's true that a nano will rarely, if ever, fail to identify a cypher. As the other answers have already noted, the difficulty of identifying a cypher is usually 1 or 2, and as stated on page 86:

By using skills and assets, working together, and - perhaps most important - applying effort, a character can decrease a target's difficulty by multiple steps to make it easier... If she can reduce the difficulty of a task to 0, no roll is needed.

Being specialised in numenera (or being trained in it and having a book about numenera, such as the one all nanos start with) is enough to reduce the difficulty of identifying numenera by 2, which makes identifying cypers automatic.

This is almost certainly deliberate. As the book repeatedly says, cyphers are intended to act more like character abilities than inventory items; A cypher you can't identify is a character ability you can't use but which is supposed to be there for game balance reasons, so I very much doubt that Monte Cook intended players to fail at identifying them.

However, not all numenera are cyphers. The other major categories of numenera are Artefacts, Oddities and Discoveries, and they have different rules for setting identification difficulty.

As per page 299, artefacts can be significantly harder to identify than cyphers:

Once the characters find an artefact, identifying it is usually a separate task, also based on Intellect and modified by knowledge of the numenera. The GM sets the difficulty, of the task, but it is usually equal to the level of the artefact.

Since artefacts run the gamut of levels from 1 to 10, it's clear that most of them aren't nearly as easy to identify as cyphers.

Oddities are numenera items that clearly have weird properties, but which have little obvious purpose or function beyond being novel paperweights and doorstops. As such, oddities can't be identified; They either have no hidden property to identify, or that property is so impossible to discover or gameplay-irrelevant that it might as well not exist. (That said, they can still have plot significance, their odd properties can occasionally be utilised by creative players or they might prove to have some highly useful property in some highly unusual circumstance... But all of those options are unusual deviations from the norm.)

Discoveries are the "miscellaneous" category of numenera, as as such, can be anything imaginable that doesn't fit into one of the other categories. They can have any properties or powers imaginable - and the difficulty of identifying discoveries could be anything, as well. Sometimes you'll want it to be automatic ("It's obviously a portal to somewhere") and other times very hard indeed ("If players identify this, they can cure all diseases forever, but they have to keep it out of the wrong hands"). Anything's possible.

So, like I said at the top, identifying numenera is occasionally automatic, but usually not. Of course, this being numerera,

An exception is if the GM decides to use a GM intrusion.


Cyphers: Only with a GM intrusion or GM-fiat

Skills, assets and effort can reduce the difficulty even bellow the minimum of 1, this can be seen on the difficulty table that shows an example of difficulty 0 task. And also on the Modifying the Difficulty rules (page 86):

By using skills and assets, working together, and—perhaps most important—applying Effort, a character can decrease a task’s difficulty by multiple steps to make it easier. Rather than adding bonuses to the player’s roll, reducing the difficulty lowers the target number that she needs to reach. If she can reduce the difficulty of a task to 0, no roll is needed; success is automatic.

Since being trained reduces difficulty by one step, and specialized reduces difficulty by two steps. A character specialized in identifying numenera will always succeed on identifying cyphers unless the GM decides that a specific cypher is harder to identify.

Once the PCs find a cypher, identifying it is a separate task, also based on Intellect and modified by knowledge of the numenera. The GM sets the difficulty of the task, but it is usually 1 or 2.

The keyword here is usually, which means the GM can decide to make a cypher harder to identify than normal. But the GM should not always increase this to higher than 2, otherwise it is no longer "usually".

However, the GM is allowed to use a GM Intrusion to remove this automatic success, the player then must roll against the original difficulty (before applying skills, assets or effort) or 20, whichever is lower (page 326):

When player modifications (such as skill, Effort, and so on) determine that success is automatic, the GM can use GM intrusion to negate the automatic success. The player must roll for the action at its original difficulty level or target number 20, whichever is lower.

Artifacts: Probably

Artifacts are a little more complex, and the difficulty to identify them is usually equal to their level. So the difficulty can go from 1 to 10, and unless the character can reduce the difficulty 10 times (It's not impossible, just very unlikely), there is always a chance of failure.

Once the characters find an artifact, identifying it is usually a separate task, also based on Intellect and modified by knowledge of the numenera. The GM sets the difficulty of the task, but it is usually equal to the level of the artifact.

But again, even if the character happens to automatically pass on the check, the GM can always use an intrusion and make her roll on the check.


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