Tabletop Review: The Devil’s Spine (Numenera)

The Devil’s Spine (Numenera)
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Page Count: 98
Cost: $24.99 ($15.95 at Amazon for the Physical, $9.99 at DriveThruRPG for the PDF)
Release Date: 10/23/2013
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

The Devil’s Spine is the first adventure collection released for Numenera which was released earlier this year. I’ve been a huge fan of everything put out for the system. From the short story collection Tales of the Ninth World to the just in time for Halloween In Strange Aeons, the previous four releases for Numenera has really captured the imagination of many a dice hucking tabletop fan.

With The Devil’s Spine, we see a set of interlocking adventures that can form the basis of a mini campaign. However, if only one of two of the adventures captures your imagination, the adventures do work as standalone pieces for your gaming troupe and the book even gives you ways to modify them for just such an occasion. The important thing is that all four adventures give you that wonderful mix of fantasy, science fiction and outright weird that Numenera has quickly become known for. While the adventures might not be for everyone, especially as three of the four are mostly dungeon crawls, each does a fine job of showcase how familiar and yet alien the Earth has become a billion years into the future. I’ll admit that since Numenera feels designed more akin to Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness where combat is secondary to exploration and information, The Devil’s Spine‘s was far too combat focused for my tastes, but the layout, follow through and glimpse into the Ninth World were all expertly done. My hope is that these adventures are not indicative that future releases will be equally hack and slashy, but only time will tell.

The first adventure in the collection, “Noble Pursuits” only works if you are playing the other three as it sets up the mini-campaign as a whole. Here the PCs will be in the home of a wealthy noble (reasons why may vary) when they discover a secret passage that leads to untold discovery, one of the most memorable creatures in the Ninth World yet as well as a ticking time bomb that gives this collection its title. After finishing “Noble Pursuits,” characters will have about three months to finish the other three adventures or die horribly. Some players may kvetch or whine about their characters being railroaded into this predicament, but honestly those players probably won’t be playing Numenera anyway due to its light rules set and focus on co-operative storytelling gameplay between the players and the GM. Besides, a threat to the PCs lives makes for good motivation and little wiggle room to get out of the campaign. I think we’ve all been in one of those situations where the GM puts a copious amount of work into a plot hook or adventure seed and at least one player throws the thing off rails. Here that won’t happen, but at least the manner in which the plot is foisted onto the characters feels organic rather than, “Too bad. It happens. GM Rules, PCs drool.”

From “Noble Pursuits” the PCs can then proceed to any of the three following adventures of their choice and complete them in whatever order they choose. In this sense, The Devil’s Spine is an actual sandbox campaign akin to video games like Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto V because the players have a choice of which sub-quest they choose to do next. Too often I see adventures where the writer leaves a lot of the work up to the GM and says, “Oh, but it’s a sandbox adventure” when really it’s just laziness and a totally incorrect understanding of what that term actually means. But I digress. I’m glad to see the sheer level of flexibility in these adventures and the fact the players truly do decide which of three tasks to do and in which order more than makes up for hamfisting the characters into this situation in the first place.

The three adventures have very different goals and locations. In “Viral Transmissions” you’ll be trying to foil the plans of a sentient virus. The adventure is very much like playing the video game Oblivion in that you’ll be travelling long distances, climbing up a tower and killing (most) everything in your path, reaching the top and then doing everything you just did in reverse. As I found Oblivion to be more than a little dull and repetitive, this was easily my least favorite of the four adventures in this collection. I did find the virus to be an interesting antagonist and many of its creations made for oft-kilter battles that forced characters to think rather than just use brute force to get by.

“The Mechanized Tomb” has characters acting as grave robbers in order to find an ancient relic known as The Impossible Blade. The tomb is full of many traps and puzzles and so this adventure tests the PCs brains and dexterity more than their brawn. Of course once you get to the end of the tomb, you get a twist and then have to deal with copious amounts of combat. This adventure has the least amount of combat, but it does hit in large gluts. I wished the combat/exploration bits had been parsed out more evenly but the huge change in focus and mood will definitely throw players off guard and remind them that the Ninth World is as chaotic as it is bizarre.

The final adventure in the collection is “Beyond the Maelstrom” and it has players to find a rare substance on the bottom of the ocean floor. Unfortunately there’s also a huge maelstrom off shore where the MacGuffin is, and so players will have to deal with that (and thus saving a local village). As well, this being the Ninth World, the Maelstrom isn’t just a naturally occurring storm. Interestingly enough, if you play this adventure as a solo, it’s risking a TPK. However, if you play it as part of a campaign, the Big Bad End Boss will be a lot easier to deal with (and not just because of the XP you’ve earned along the way). As well, as this adventure takes place under the sea, this is a great chance to really make the experience for your players stand out. After all, the real ocean is filled to the brim with genetic oddities and weird life forms as it is. Imagine what things will be like in a billion years! With the opportunity for players to experience aquatic combat, drive submersibles or even gain a genetic implant to let them breathe underwater, “Beyond the Maelstrom” is the one the stands out most from the usual, “Go through Dungeon A to get Item B while defeating Antagonist C along the way.” motif of this collection. I found it to be very entertaining and memorable, but as mentioned, you might not want to do this one as a one off, especially with Tier One characters.

The collection then ends with sixteen full colour half page images to present to players while they progress through these adventures. I loved this as it meant all the visual handouts were in one section in addition to being interspersed throughout the book. This makes for easy finding of the images when needed. Because so much of Numenera involves weird locations, creatures, buildings and events, sometimes a verbal description, even one from a very verbose GM, doesn’t do the concepts justice. That’s why it’s great to have all these visual aids available in this collection. Players can be shown just what they are encountering, but without being given a glimpse of the adventure text that should be for GM’s eyes only. I wish they had done this with the monsters in the collection too. It would have been great to have them lumped together in the back as a mini bestiary for ease of finding.

Overall, The Devil’s Spine is another fine addition to the Numenera series. I think it’s the weakest overall product for the line so far, but only because the collection backslides into old school Dungeons and Dragons hack and slash dungeon crawling, which has seem to be the exact opposite of what Numenera strives for in the core rulebook. The adventures are still well done, the boast some wonderful art and I can definitely recommend the collection to any fan of the cipher system so far. It’s just a heads up that these are very combat heavy and if that is not what you or your GM have in mind for Numenera, you might be better off homebrewing your adventures. For those that do pick it up, these four adventures will keep your gaming crew busy for many a session and also give you a nice look as how multifaceted and strange the Ninth World is.

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