The Deva Spark

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 16: The Deva Spark




Not every release for Planescape was good, or for that matter even passable. After all, we’re talking about dozens of releases from quite a few authors put out by a corporation on strict deadlines, so really the surprising thing about the setting is how many releases were good-to-great. That being said, it’s not until The Deva Spark that we arrive at something actually bad to the point that I recommend skipping it entirely. It’s not worth the purchase on eBay or the couple bucks it costs to grab the PDF. Hell, I don’t even recommend pirating it. Yes, I’m still going to write about it below, but I fully suggest pretending it was never a part of the setting. Which, oddly, is actually pretty easy to do, as it doesn’t much feel like a Planescape release anyhow. 

The Deva Spark was the final release in the line’s first year, coming out either in November or December of 1994 (depending on where you get your information) and written by Bill Slavicsek and J.M. Salbury. It’s quite the down note to end the year on, after some truly monumental releases so far, but given the even more impressive releases of 1995 that can certainly be forgiven. It’s also one of a handful of Planescape works that’s also by one of the authors of that much-reviled earlier work Tales of the Outer Planes, a book with which it shares more than a bit of kinship with, to the point that it feels almost like a lengthier adventure from that book rather than a product meant to continue in the structure of The Eternal Boundary. 


Slavicsek’s adventure in Tales was “Into the Astral Plane,” which I remember almost nothing about despite having read it only a handful of months ago. My only note on it in my essay on that book is that this one is “only mediocre and not actively bad,” though I need to add that given the context, it was being graded on quite a curve. Skimming back through it now, it seems like an overly dull and poorly motivated trip to the Astral Plane to recover a dumb macguffin, but I can’t bother to make myself re-read it. Even so, it already bears some unfortunate similarities to The Deva Spark, which is sad considering how sketchy my understanding of it all is. 

Probably what depresses me most about Spark is that its central idea is pretty good, it’s just that every single part of its execution (ok, aside from the art and design) is unredeemable. At its core, Spark has adventurers trying to help out an angel whose spark of goodness (something heretofore never mentioned in the setting, and never to be mentioned again afterwards…) that imbues them with their abilities ends up in the hands of a demon. This transforms the demon into something not so demonic, which leads the party to consider what they should do about this whole mess. It’s not the world’s deepest philosophical lesson, but it’s a solid-enough premise to center a story around. That being said, as with all things, execution matters a ton for game design, and here it’s nothing if not poor. 

I dunno what’s going on in this art. There’s an angel, and a dude, and….. a lot of border? Your guess is as good as mine.

From the first sentence, Spark is bad, so bad that I’m not even going to bother quoting any of this dreck. Skipping past that, the book begins with a backstory which makes fundamentally no sense. The reason an angel gives up its spark is because rather than using its fundamental powers to sense alignment, it sees a bad person do something good and just gives it to him without telling, no questions asked. One piece of advice I offer to all people involved with creative writing is not to make your characters fundamentally idiotic. If their choices make no sense, then your story makes no sense and is unrelatable. This act of idiocy isn’t just forgettable backstory, it becomes central to the story at large, and as other decisions pile on top of it there’s soon a whole mess of unexplainable actions woven together rather than a story.

The actual adventure itself is plagued with similarly dumb problems. The characters end up in the Abyss due to a waitress making an equally idiotic mistake, then witness a series of events they only understand through heavyhanded exposition, before being whisked back to Sigil and into Elysium. But before we get to that plane where most of the adventure takes place, let’s take a look at Spark‘s version of Sigil. The authors introduce a tavern called The Ubiquitous Wayfarer, which like the World Serpent Inn moves around at random (i.e. the DM’s desire), and is filled with 


a typical Sigil crowd: Chaosmen and governors discussing philosophy over frothing mugs in one corner … ; a tiefling snuggling up to a bariaur near the fire; various primes, planars, and petitioners mingling freely … ; a tanar’ri sitting with a planetar at a nearby table; a pack of imps dancing around and a band of singing githyanki over there.

The scene this quote describes isn’t Sigil, let alone a “typical” crowd. People don’t happily frolic around and argue about philosophy in the corners like a group of bored graduate students. No one does this. These people can’t exist, and no planetar (higher-level angel) hangs out with an upper level demon just for shits and giggles. This is exactly the high camp ridiculousness of The World Serpent Inn, and while there aren’t gods here (thank God),  Planetars are in fact said to be on that power level. This type of space, with its happy-go-lucky attitude, is completely opposed to the Sigil first introduced by David “Zeb” Cook and soon to be expanded on over the next several years. To say that I hate it would be a vast, vast understatement.

Demons at a bar just demoning it up. As they do, I guess.

Spark‘s other great sin is that it’s entirely linear, to the point that players don’t even decide to go to the Abyss, they just pop in there. The version of Elysium described here is not just monumentally boring, it’s also quite linear, as players simply decide where they want to go and soon appear there after a designated amount of time. They’re hardly active in any of this pursuit, they just go from point to point doing “good works,” and while Rob Lazzaretti’s map of the Realm of Principality is as lovely as ever, it’s also almost completely useless. I don’t even mind railroad adventures if they’re interesting, but here it’s a complete slog, as players learn they need to collect a few macguffins, then bring them to the right place and whammo presto the quest is done.

Oh, it’s also entirely possible to lose the adventure at the very beginning by choosing not to save a sheep that falls in a river. I’m not exaggerating—time in this realm is determined by “good deeds,” and if players don’t save that sheep, it takes much longer to get from place to place. There’s a timer on the quest to save the titular deva, which is a week, and it’s easy to end up in this realm with just six days left. Given that it then takes D6 days to get from this opening location to even the second location, letting that sheep drown is a quicker way to lose this adventure than stripping off all your armor and running headfirst at the demon. I can’t help but note that there are no playtesters listed in the credits for Spark, and while that doesn’t mean there weren’t any… you start to get a sense that at the very least playtesting was an afterthought.


Another aspect of Spark that feels so fundamentally against Planescape is that the adventure assumes from the very beginning that the party is virtuous and good-aligned. Spark is more or less unwinnable by an evil or even neutral party. There is only one way to play through the adventure, and that is by being “good,” doing nice things just because, and this binary way of dealing with the world is antithetical to the myriad philosophies that are central to the setting. It’s amazing to me that two pages of the book are spent on faction involvement considering that there isn’t really any at all, and this adventure not just ignores them but in many ways treats the factions as hostile. 

This comes to a head at the end of the adventure, something I’ve seen much-praised elsewhere for reasons beyond me. The party gets to choose whether to save the deva, the demon, both, or neither. Yet despite these options, the book goes to great length to explain how there is a “best” solution, and explains ways to penalize players for choosing several of these choices. At the same time, one of these even pisses off the deva’s power, despite the fact that a power should just be able to fix things themselves if they’re so interested in things. Bah, the lack of logic here hurts my brain. 

Half of the map of Principality. Pretty as usual, but almost completely useless, which I suppose is fitting of such a non-place as the realm of a completely undefined deity.

Which leads me to one more annoyance, which is that this nameless power remains nameless. It’s “unimportant,” according to the book, despite that religions and philosophies matter to the utmost in Planescape. The “Realm of Principality” is never defined at all. Whose realm is it? That’s, uhh, errr, someone’s! Probably! As another bit of creative writing advice, specifics are good. They’re what keep people invested and give a world its realism. When a person who’s so utterly devoted to their god that they’re imbued with some of their power answers a question as to who they serve with, “Uhh, one of the good ones, I think,” then you’re doing something terribly wrong. 


Beyond all these complaints, Spark is heavy-handed to the point of sermonizing about its themes. As a result, no one in it feels like real characters, as they all act like nothing more than clumsy plot devices driving the party inexorably onward towards its eventual goal. This is the only Planescape book in which Good and Evil are spelled out in such banal, basic ways. In a setting that stresses the rule of threes largely to force players out of dichotomies and into thinking about varying perspectives, everything here is stark black-and-white to the point that I would’ve found it immature as a 10-year-old. 

What else can I say positive about the adventure? Well, the cartography is fantastic as usual, and the art is pretty good. And, uhh, it comes with another of those dungeon screens, so there’s that, I guess. I don’t know, this release just leaves me feeling depressed. Fortunately, I believe it’s the worst thing we’ll see in the entire Planescape line, though now that I’ve finished it I find myself dreading moving forward in case I’m wrong. After all, there’s another adventure by Slaviscek released in the line, and the fact that he considers both of these adventures his “personal bests” has me more than a bit worried.

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