Name: The Devil’s Spine
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
System: Cypher System
Format: Softcover book
Size: 28cm x 21.8cm x 0.9cm
Rating: (3.0 / 5)
The Devils Spine is a campaign Adventure book for the Numenera Roleplaying game by Monte Cook games. It is written by Monte Cook, the lead writer and creator of Numenera and it was released at the same time as the Numenera game.
The Devils Spine primarily consists of 3 main adventures, with an additional prologue and epilogue that you can play through and a few side quests and additions that can be added to elongate the length of the campaign. Assuming that you regularly play 4 hour sessions (say weekly), and the party doesn’t deviate significantly from the general plot, I estimate it would take between 12 and 16 weeks to complete the campaign.
The book is softback with relatively high production values. The cover art is evocative and somewhat foreboding without giving away too much of what is contained within. I have a small criticism with the durability of the cover, in that the plastic coating is beginning to peel away at the edges, a somewhat common occurrence on books of this kind. It would have been preferable if the book could stand up to general use for the duration of the game, without becoming damaged.
Picture of damage.
The inside of the book is full colour and is heavily illustrated, which helps guide the imagination considering some of the more obscure and outlandish creatures and locations that are included. In a move that I find very reminiscent of the Planescape product ‘Hellbound: The Blood War’ the campaign also includes a number of ‘show em’ images which are situated towards the back of the book and referenced throughout as to when it is appropriate to show the picture to the players. I’m not 100% sold on this technique but it can serve to be useful from time to time.
The campaign is designed so that you can take newly created characters from 1st tier up to 4th tier, depending on how generous you are with the XP. Once through the prologue players can complete the adventures in any order they wish, but the printed order in the book is presented as the most logical and, also, is the order in which they scale, meaning that less GM modification is needed to make them suitable for the party. From my perspective I think that the 3rd adventure, for instance, would be hard to impossible for tier 1 characters without significant alteration. For GM’s running them out of the suggested order some basic guidance is provided to help you make the changes required.
Warning, Spoilers Ahead!
The campaign follows a fairly generic plot. The PC’s are in town for any reason the GM wants and are drawn to a mansion. Exploration of the mansion reveals a hidden pit which, when explored, is revealed to be an egg chamber for a strange species of giant worms. A number of PC’s become the unwilling hosts to some of these larvae worms and make a deal with the worm mother to have them removed, in exchange for a task and them finding the equipment required. The party are given around 90 days (the rough gestation period of the larvae) to complete the task and obtain the two items to make the removal possible.
I’m not a huge fan of the railroad style with which the adventure begins as, for the party to be inclined to participate in the adventures, at least 1 has to become infected with the worm larvae. Now, granted, this is pretty likely to happen if they descend into the pit, the fact that it has to happen still irks me a little. That said, the 90 day timer does add a nice element of suspense to the proceedings, especially if the group roll over the 70 or 80 day mark and close in on their impending doom.
The 3 adventures are (in the order they are printed and the suggested order to run them in)-
- Viral Transmissions
- The Mechanised Tomb
- Beyond the Maelstrom
I’ll provide a brief overview of each to give you an idea of what kind of adventure each is.
Picture of page 1 of Viral Transmissions
Viral Transmissions is the payment to the mother worm for her agreeing to remove the worm larvae. It’s the first adventure and it’s designed for tier 1 or 2 characters. The basic premise is that a bioengineered virus known as the ‘Insidious Choir’ has gradually expensing from it’s base, the Field of Towers, and is infecting everything in it’s path. The mother worm knows that the virus can only communicate between hosts by way of radio waves and so tasks the PC’s with disrupting the transmission of these so as to stop the spread of the virus.
The players are directed to what is basically a hover train and their first task is to solve a simple puzzle on how to get it to work. Doing this takes the party 200 miles towards their target and shaves around 2 weeks, each way, off their journey (which is pretty important when they only have 90 days to complete the missions). Once the train is moving the party can relax for a couple of hours before a rather tense confrontation with the first of the sentient virus hosts atop the speeding train. This is tense since the party have a limited time to stop the virus before it derails the train, in my case my players failed and barely managed to survive the 100mph train crash hallway through the tunnel.
Once through to the other side there is some general description of the landscape with a couple of points of interest mentioned as well as a couple of encounters with other travellers and a fight with another fairly powerful wormlike creature. When the PC’s finally arrive at the field of towers their first task is to come up with a way through hundreds of the virus hosts, to reach the transmission tower and find a way to permanently disrupt the signal. No methods are suggested and this is all down to player creativity and is a nice little freeform section which rewards players for innovative problem solving.
The transmission tower itself is a series of either stealth or, more likely, combat encounters, as the players seek to scale the 8 or so levels before reaching the top. For my group is started out as a standard room by room clearance before quickly escalating to a mad sprint for the end when it became apparent that other hosts were proceeding into the tower after them and they would be quickly overwhelmed. More quick thinking meant my players used a cypher to sheer through a large section of the ramp on the outside of the tower, both cutting off access from below and crushing a number of hosts.
Once at the top the players just need to find a way to destroy the transmitter, which can be achieved via a number of different means but will likely just come down to brute force or a cypher. After the transmitter goes down the hosts, having lost communication with one another, lose cohesion and fall apart and any infected player or NPC regains control of their own faculties.
This adventure has a nice mix of combat, forward thinking with a little bit of puzzle solving and socialising thrown in. It’s a good start to the campaign and the train encounter especially is very tense and fast paced.
Picture of page 1 of mechanised tomb.
Adventure 2, The Mechanised Tomb, is probably my favourite of the 3 and harkens back to a good old dungeon crawl from early D&D, albeit with a bit of a 9th world twist. It’s the 2nd adventure and it’s designed for tier 2 or 3 characters. Tier 1 characters would likely struggle in several sections as some of the traps require some more powerful abilities (or very specific cyphers) to navigate.
In this adventure the PC’s are searching for an artefact, The Impossible Blade, which is needed to perform the operation to remove the worm larvae. The background is that legend holds that The Impossible Blade was part of the burial horde of a Queen of an extinct kingdom and it is located somewhere in her tomb. Her tomb is apparently haunted and protected by a guardian to the underworld who must kill anyone who seeks to pass. The tomb itself is located down an ancient pit of apparently infinite depth and has, in fact, been built into a far older structure of indeterminate use and origin.
The PC’s pick up the trail of the tomb by rescuing a Nevajin from a tribe of Chirogs. This person tells them that the information they seek can be found in a nearby town and gives them directions there. In town the players find the location of the pit, learn of few of the myths that surround it as well as some of the history of the Queen and her kingdom and maybe pick up a guide (who will later betray them).
Finding the pit is easy, it’s located in a fairly flat expanse of land near the Cloud Crystal fields and has a number of huge towers surrounding it. The interior of the pit has a ramp (a more recent addition compared to the age of the pit) that leads down to the first layer, a false entrance that contains the guardian of the tomb. This creature is far older than the tomb and fights to defend it by stinging trespassers with a lethal poison. This poison actually contains a genetic marker that allows those affected to access further parts of the tombs later, and so it’s more or less pivotal that at least some of the party get stung.
Once the guardian has been defeated the players must try and locate, then reach the actual entrance to the tomb, some distance further down the pit with no easy access. This will likely lead to some imaginative use of abilities, cyphers and ropes to get to where they need to be before there is a fairly elaborate 5 stage door puzzle before access to the tomb proper is allowed.
Beyond the door is a series of trapped rooms that, via a secret door, provided access to a lift down to the next level of the tomb. Some of these traps are extremely deadly and left my tier 2 party almost dead as they used their abilities and cyphers to advance, room by room, eventually splitting up as they each reached as far as they could without wasting resources. In particular I like the Crusher room, which has a simple but effective moving plate trap that requires some fairly clever thinking to bypass without severely debilitating the party to the point that several days of rest are required before moving on.
Level 2 of the tomb has several more puzzles and traps and gives the GM a variety of interesting ways to intervene. It makes the adventure much more tense if the players become trapped on this level, which is easy enough if they take their hands off the lists controls, but as mine didn’t it took an intervention to break the controls and leave them stuck, apparently without a way out.
Another of my more favourite parts of the dungeon is at the end of the 2nd level, which is a teleporter with just two destinations, outside, several hundred feet up, and the next level, still further down the pit. Be very conscious here that the players can’t communicate with the person who has been teleported and so they won’t know whether it was successful or not. For my players, they’d picked up a two way communication cypher which made things a little easier, but without it I can imagine that much confusion would have abounded, especially since it would now be impossible for anyone who landed outside to get back to them as the lift was broken…..
Beyond the teleporter are yet more traps before the final showdown with an Erulian Master ho has claimed the Impossible Blade for it’s own. The traps at this point are fairly devious and require some clever thinking to avoid entirely. My party was forced to try and cure one party member of what they defined as ‘rage spores’ by locking him behind a forcefield with a radiation bomb.
As a final surprise, outside the guide, who they picked up in town earlier (if they did pick him up that is), has gathered some allies and plans to ambush the party and steal their plunder for himself. It’s a nice little addition that helps the world feel a little more dynamic.
The Mechanised Tomb is a great adventure. It primarily involved problem solving and careful exploration but it intersperses that with some interesting combat and it covers some social encounters at the start. Numenera, as a game, rewards exploration and inventive thinking and The Mechanised Tomb, more than any other adventure in The Devils Spine really promotes those things. If I was rating the whole campaign on the basis of this one adventure it’d be a 5/5.
Picture of page 1 of Beyond the Maelstrom
Beyond the Maelstrom is the 3rd and final adventure in the campaign. It’s written for 3rd or 4th tier adventurers and I actually needed to run a short side quest to boost my players up before running them through it. The adventure takes them a long way away, to the coastal town of Harmuth in search of a contact who might be able to point them towards the second item they need to perform to be able to survive the worm’s extraction, a mysterious substance known as Gharolan.
After they meet the contact, and he agrees to help them the players need to prepare for an adventure at sea and under the ocean as it becomes apparent that the Gharolan is located near thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. The ocean is undergoing a curious storm, that is both unseasonal and irregular in length and ferocity. More so, it appears to be primarily located under the water, rather than in the sky above it.
This section provides a few little side quests that help flesh out the town and may help the players acquire the resources to either hire a boat, or strike a deal to get one in exchange for services rendered. There is also a page and a half of new equipment, specific to under water survival.
Once out on the water there is a selection of 3 possible encounters that the GM can use, if they want, as the journey should has 6 days out to the vents. Once there the party encounter a strange village, on the back of a whale, at what turns out to be the heart of the storm. A little more negotiating and talking later and the players discover that the storm is centralised around a structure, made of super dense water, on the ocean floor. This building is located directly over the thermal vents and seems to be somehow responsible for the unnatural storm.
The PC’s head down, with the knowledge that they won’t be able to return up without first disabling the storms. The structure turns out to be huge, irregular in shape, and housing a variety of odd sea creatures, as befitting Numenera. The structure, and the storm, were constructed by an impossibly ancient seas creature named the Moyag, who is using the storm as a cocoon so as to move to the next stage of her evolution. Moyag is old, malevolent, intelligent and, unfortunately for the players, the final confrontation of the adventure.
Passing through the structure the players encounter a variety of sea creatures loyal to Moyag, including some sea spiders who inadvertently create the Gharolan they desperately need. Of course, they also need to disable the storm, no easy task, and to do this they must eventually free a captive of Moyag and battle her. This is harder than it sounds, she is a level 9 monster, who has absolute control within her realm. Only though clever thinking, interpretation of visions sent by the freed captive, and use of Numenera can they realistically drive her off and escape safely.
My players though that this final confrontation was overly tough and I’m inclined to agree. The battle is set up under the assumption that the PC’s have located, identified and brought along a pair of Cyphers from earlier in the structure. Mine had them, but didn’t know what they did and the only option was to give them cryptic visions since simply telling them would have been somewhat anticlimactic. Now this can be played on, Moyag knows that she could defeat them, she tells them as such, and so she can act disinterested enough to not just kill them outright, rather toying with them maliciously. It works, but it could be better.
Once Moyag is driven off and the storm is disabled the PC’s can return to the surface and begin the race back to the worm mother before the 90 days is up. If you time it well then this can be very suspenseful since time should be running out unless the party have been very efficient with their time. As a last point on Beyond the Maelstrom, there is a particular type of jellyfish in it that ha it’ motivation defined as ‘belligerent’, which I find hysterically funny.
Picture of Belligerent Jellyfish.
Overall The Devil’s Spine is a solid campaign and a perfect way to launch into the 9th world. It takes the players to around midway through the tiers and it includes enough different elements to make it really interesting.
I do have a couple of criticisms though. Firstly, the Impossible Blade, the Gharolan and the creatures that develop it aren’t defined well enough early on. Unusually no page reference is provided for either and this makes providing any information on them particularly hard early on. As always, a GM should read the campaign in full before running it, but thats not always possible and while I skimmed it’s entirety I couldn’t find either, even when searching, until I read those sections in detail, which led to a few alterations along the way.
Secondly, as I said, the final encounter is too hard. Numenera isn’t a combat cerntric game and focusing heavily on a nigh on impossible boss fight felt a little clunky and out of sync with the rest of the campaign, which is a shame.
Neither point is enough to put me off running it for another group one day, but it does impact the ease of running the campaign as a whole and makes it a little clunky in parts.