We reviewed and played this Numenera adventure and got our minds blown to pieces. Our Nano got blown to pieces too! A double blast night!


When Janek reached me about writing a review for one of his books, I realized that I already own most of his Numenera supplements, but read none. What can I say, I’m a Cypher System hoarder, and there are no cypher limits on my sheet.

Apart from “preview reviews” I did for Priests of the Aeons and Slaves of the Machine God, which I did out of boredom and for fun, I never thought about writing reviews on this blog, and never even imagined someone might request one. Flattered, I accepted the challenge.

The Deal
I feel that a good review needs a playthrough as well, so I asked my group if they would like to do a short campaign break and play the module for the purpose of this article. I originally planned to do it outside of their world, but players insisted I weave it into their ongoing narrative.

This decision created a couple of problems for me. The first one is that they have an airship, which automatically breaks the adventure, a story about a descent into an abyss, that puts a moral decision at the core of the question of how will the characters ascend back up. The second one is that they just came out of a heist with a mother-load of iotum and quite a number of ideas on what to do with it. The only good thing was that they just got to Tier 2 for which this module is written.

But let me first introduce the adventure, before I tell you how I tackled these initial problems.

A Breath of Fresh Ideas
This Numenera/Cypher System supplement is written by a long-standing Cypher System author Janek Sielicki, who also writes 5E modules. My first impression, when I opened the PDF, was that it follows well-established MCG standards of laying out what’s a book about, with first few pages dedicated to story background, synopsis and several ideas on how to get players involved.

These are immediately useful and provide a necessary context needed for further reading and understanding of the material.

Rest of the book is divided into six scenes, which is something I also like, as I tend to think in scenes when running my games. If we were to think in arcs the book has three:

  • Initial, against the odds, fight that acts as a narrative tool to get the players to enter a prior world structure.
  • Descent and an exploration of the prior world structure.
  • Dealing with an alien species and figuring out how to ascend back.

I like this structure very much. It starts with a bang, which my players enjoyed immensely, switches into an exploration mode, then turns up the weird to eleven introducing the “aliens”, all the while slowly weaving a seed of a burden, that hits the players head on in the final act

The brilliant thing is that although the players are forced in and for some time trapped at the bottom of an abyss, final act opens up imposing a well thought out moral choice upon players, at which point it lets them free.

With no prescribed ending, no boss fight (optional though), it turns the standard adventure structure on its head, leaving players to deal with the morality of their past and future decisions.

Janek masterfully ends the book with these words:

“This adventure is about making tough choices, about becoming better – or worse. It is a journey to an alien world, one that doesn’t have to be, one that perhaps can’t be fully understood, weighed and counted. It’s about making sacrifices for no tangible rewards. I hope you and your players have enjoyed it! “

The Prep
On the game day, I took a couple of hours to prep and wrote about 5 pages, covering scenes one, two and three, and printed out several handouts.

That night we managed to play through scenes one and two, albeit twice, but more on that later on. Prep Sheet

Flashbacks
First thing I needed to figure out was how to take away the ship from the players and the loot it carries. As I already had their agreement to play this module, I decided to heavy-hand it and jump them through space and time, straight into the adventure.

I started from scene one and used flashbacks to explain how they got there and why.

Reason for that is if I was to start them with a hook, knowing they have a ship full of loot, they would take their sweet ass time to poke around the edges of the adventure, looking for a risk-averse way to engage with it. Time which they have in their sandbox-style campaign, but a time I didn’t want to allow here, as I wanted to run this as intended, for the purpose of writing an honest review. Not to mention that my group consists of professional derailers, who enjoy breaking up premises and turning the world on its head, wrecking chaos wherever they go.

One of the said players, a Nano, recently mentioned to me that he would like to do one honest heroic thing, not burning any aldeias to the ground in the process, if possible. So for him, a hook about saving missing children that went to investigate the Rift was a perfect choice. A hook that he found he “accepted” through a flashback scene, of course. The second player, a Wright, is a sucker for prior world stuff, the bigger the better, so a mere rumor of a giant automaton, was all it took. With these two settled, third player, a Delve, would just follow along.

I was relieved at play to find these flashback hooks worked really well, players were on board with them, although I did take their agency away. This would not be possible had I not known my players well, and without their blank approval to run this adventure for them.

The ship stayed at the nearby (made up) village, as during their recon mission (another flashback), they found out the fumes coming out of the Rift negatively impact it’s flight abilities, and decided not to risk it falling into an abyss. This went well and served a secondary purpose for storing an absent Glaive character, whose player couldn’t make it to the session that night.

For GMs who would run this adventure in a standard fashion, there are several things to consider:

  • The adventure will not work if characters have any kind of flying/teleport means or abilities. The book states this up front.
  • You need to remove any flying/teleport cyphers from play.
  • If you have a Wright and/or a Delve in the group as I have, make sure that they don’t find or possess highest level materials that allow for creating any kind of flying artifacts or vehicles.
  • Once the players take the hook, whatever it might be, in the first scene they need to realize that the only way to survive is to activate the portal and go down the abyss.

These points are super important, and if you don’t take them into an account your players will either break the adventure or die horribly.

Play Report Scene 1
Janek’s writing is top notch and very easy to create scenes from. I used his words as a starter for my first scene, as written:

“Wind howls among the long-forgotten burial mounds, old yellow bones dot the reddish ground and up ahead hot air shimmers and twists as clouds of hot fumes rise from the Rift, as if some gigantic beast was hidden in the prehistoric depths, slowly breathing and waiting for the right moment to wake up. “

I switched between present time and flashbacks as soon as any of the players asked something along the lines of: “Why we are here?” “Where is the ship?” and so on…

I framed the initial scene so that Delve was keeping their backs safe while Nano and Wright were trying to activate the portal that leads to the Rift. Originally it was supposed to be Glaive who kept the threat at bay, so this was the first thing I had to improv that night.

Swarm of Troubles
Badooks are the main early threat that forces players down the Rift. They are essentially a Zerg swarm. I statted them as suggested in the book, and they work. Weaklings are easy to kill but come in greater numbers and are an annoyance, while Warriors are a threat to Tier 2 players. The Matriarch, stats as a Tyrannosaurus Rex however, is a walking TPK machine.

Although the Glaive was missing that night, I decided against tweaking the challenge levels.

A Puzzle for a Life
While Delve was keeping initial, light Badook waves in check, Nano and Wright were trying to activate the portal, knowing it is their only chance to save themselves from the surrounding swarm.

The “portal”, actually a device that summons a giant automaton from the depths of the chasm, is a simple two INT tasks puzzle. If I was running the adventure from an actual hook, I would’ve expanded a bit on it to make it more engaging. I did plan to print out some cabalistic symbols as a handout but forgot to.

Wright and Nano easily passed two required INT checks, activated the summon, and symbols on the device changed into a Predator-style countdown - unknown symbols apparently counting down to something. At that point first, unexpected, player curveball happened. Nano asked if he can decipher the symbols to figure out how much time it will take for the counter to reach “zero”. And I said yes.

Knowing that the countdown time is not stated in the book, that I need to introduce the Matriarch to the scene, and keep the pressure rising, it was the first difficult, on the fly decision I had to make that night. I decided from my gut, and said to the player, once he succeeded on this INT task, that the counter will stop after 3 or 4 rounds.

This proved to be a good call, although I had to introduce the Matriarch before the giant came up, as opposed to the book, which introduces the Matriarch in the same instance when the automaton appears. Rising tension of the creeping swarm kept the players engaged, adrenalin levels going through the roof.

Delve who retreated back towards his comrades gave his buzzer to the Wright so he too could shoot at the encroaching Badooks from a range. At his first attack attempt, Wright rolled a 1, which made all his disc ammunition spill to the ground. The significance of this scene will come about later, so read on!

“The mists boil over and the earth begins to shake, responding to the rhythmical strikes. A gargantuan arm emerges from behind the edge, trailing wisps of mist marking its trajectory, and then with a mighty crash the hand comes down, splattering the hapless Badooks that didn’t manage to get away. Slowly, inexorably, the rest of the mountainlike construct heaves its arms and upper body over the edge, the claws on its hands anchoring deep into the rockbed…”

King of Golems
As the construct emerged from the depths, Wright decided to role play his mechanical background. While everyone scuttled around trying to avoid getting crushed by a giant hand, he was in a weird Numenera frenzy ecstasy, sitting at the top of the summoning flower-stone, believing Golem to be his to command.

Earth shook as the hand smashed next to him, and I had him roll SPEED task not to fall off the structure. He rolled major success, and things started to get weird from this point.

Nano decided to join this craziness, by trying to hack into Wrights mind telepathically and stop his self imposed frenzy. After one failed attempt, they both got the same number on their opposing rolls and got stuck in this ill-timed battle of the minds.

At this point the swarm is on top of them, Delve standing at the Automaton entrance, trying to fend off the swarm, not believing what the other two are doing. He picks up a shin from his pocket and tries to hit the Wright with it a couple of times, but Wright is on the roll, and both attempts to awake him fail.

Nano manages to flick a cypher bomb into the swarm that buys them a few rounds. When telepathy fails, a good slap across the face does the job, and Wright finally back to his senses, manages a stellar battle retreat through the frenzied swarm, and the whole party, badly damaged is finally in the construct’s head, together with at least a dozen of Badooks that disperse into the darkness of the machine.

As the entrance slowly closes up, the Matriarch manages to sweep through the opening with one of her giant claws. Delve manages to avoid the devastating attack, Wright fails and drops to debilitated state with only a few INT points left. Nano, thin across all three pools, realizes his destiny, and instead of a defense task, he tosses the Reset cypher over to Delve, and dies a heroic death, going straight from hale to dead.

The Reset
I knew they had the Reset, a cypher that once activated, resets the time 5 minutes into the past, with only the user retaining memories of that prior future. I just did not expect they would use it in the opening scene!

I was not exactly sure where are 5 minutes in the past at that point, so I chose the most narratively appropriate solution:

“Wind howls among the long-forgotten burial mounds, old yellow bones dot the reddish ground and up ahead hot air shimmers and twists as clouds of hot fumes rise from the Rift, as if some gigantic beast was hidden in the prehistoric depths, slowly breathing and waiting for the right moment to wake up. “

We go back to the very beginning of the night, and I repeat the opening scene word for word, exactly as I did it at the start of the session. Players are ecstatic and I am super happy, as these kinds of awesome crazy stuff can happen only in the Cypher System!

The Dice Gods
Our Delve now hurries back to his mates, not wasting any time, and tries to persuade them he saw the future. Nano seeing his Reset used up realizes Delve is telling the truth. He also scans his surface thoughts, only to find out about his own gruesome death.

One of the most sublime scenes of the night happened at this point. Delve, as before, hands over the buzzer to the Wright, who tries to shoot at the Badooks, and rolls a 1. Again. I play the same intrusion as the first time, his ammo spills to the ground.

The table erupts as our collective minds get blown to pieces.

Knowing what the future brings, this time they managed to deal with the swarm more efficiently, and finally, enter the construct without major problems. Giant’s head closes up, a shudder shakes the interior and the thing begins its slow descent into the abyss.

I end the session.

Calaval’s eyes, what a night! When dice meet the narrative, peak RPG experience happens. It was so sublime that I dreamt about the session that night.

Closing Thoughts
This first part of the adventure is a bit railroady, as the adventure needs to trap the players in order to do its thing. Towards that goal, however, the setup works really well, and tension was building up throughout the night.

As I already mentioned there are several important prerequisites that need to be met in order for the story to work as a whole. Because of that, I feel that it’s easier to run this as a standalone mini-scenario, compared to plopping it somewhere in your ongoing campaign. Requirements would also be a non-issue if the adventure was made for Tier 1 characters - no need to worry about flying that way.

Coming Soon
Next session we will be playing the second arc where characters are exploring the Automaton. This, in essence, is a mini point-crawl between 5 locations. Here are some thoughts I had while preparing this part:

  • Decent lasts several hours, so I will need to manage time more closely.
  • There is not much in it besides these 5 locations, so just in case I will prepare some additional rooms using Jade Colossus mapping engine.
  • I will need to track how much damage characters will do to it, as that will come into play in the third act.
  • As this part will be somewhat calmer than the first one, I need to remember to shake them up when the Colossus is on the move.
  • Aliens introduction scene is important, needs a good prep.

One thing that I am looking for to play with is the innovative communication mechanic, I didn’t mention here, but will write more about in the second part. “Aliens” communicate via emotions, so that will be a really interesting challenge for the players. Adventure provides a list of emotions states spread across three columns on two pages - there are a lot of them. Unfortunately for me, I will need to translate this list, as my group is not playing in English.

So far this adventure was a breath of fresh air (sorry not sorry) to my little group of slying seskii. What will happen next, only Calaval knows.