On the Radar: ‘Spire’

Bias disclaimer: The people who write and produce Spire are personal friends and therefore there is likely to be bias in this post. I also took a look over Blood and Dust before the Kickstarter to suggest minor edits for accessibility to new GMs. However, the creators of Spire have not asked me to promote it and I do not benefit monetarily from writing this.

From the team (Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor) that brought you Goblin Quest, Unbound and the Hearty Dice Friends podcast comes Spire, a game of oppression, survival and resistance. Turning the standard narrative of ‘evil Drow, except that one guy’ on its head, the drow of this setting have been enslaved by the aelfir, or high elves, and forced to live deep in the lowest reaches of a towering city called Spire, far from the sun that burns their skin. Your characters are part of the Ministry, a religious sect that also forms one of the resistance movements of the city. This post primarily concerns the backer-only quickstart rules and starter adventure, Blood and Dust, as Spire itself is still in the writing stages.

I almost titled this post ‘I ran the Spire quickstart and it was super fun you guys’ but I felt that might be unwieldy – however, it gives you a rough idea of the tenor of this post going forward. I did indeed run the quickstart adventure for Spire for three friends, who played the Lajhan, the Idol and the Vermissian Sage. Luckily, Spire is the kind of game where it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any dedicated fighters in the party – it just makes it more complicated, and complications are fun.

Blood and Dust is designed as a toolkit for an adventure rather than a linear storyline. It lays out NPCs and locations from one of the neighbourhoods in Spire, plus a few bits from two other neighbourhoods, and a larger plot that ties the disparate elements together. Reading through the sample characters and the toolkit was what made me think, “Yes! I want to run this!” Spire drips with atmosphere and tone – every aspect of it emphasises the themes of the setting, the sense of corruption and degeneration, never watering down a dark fantasy story of slavery, fantastical cyberpunk and body horror into a more generic fantasy RPG. Anyone who has read Howitt and Taylor’s past work knows that even their ‘generic’ game, Unbound, is flavourful and unique, and the majority of their games are wacky and fun with great heart, in the Goblinquest vein, utterly themselves without compromise (that’s a good thing, at least to me). From what I’ve seen of Spire, that holds true here too.

I won’t go into much detail on the system, as honestly I’d much rather encourage people to back an independent RPG Kickstarter (only 60 hours to go, get in there quick!), but things I love:

  • Bonds – they’re like Strings but more lasting and vulnerable, both in the sense that NPC connections are more vulnerable to the characters’ actions and that they make the PCs more vulnerable.
  • The Resistance/Stress tracks – the idea that I can hit a character in their wallet, their secret identity and their public face as much as more usual kinds of stress is just wonderful.
  • Extra Stress slots – one thing I often struggle with in games is having the little moving parts to play around with, to take away and place characters at a temporary disadvantage or to use as rewards. I can see stress slots having a lot of potential there, and it means the fallout system (which the GM rolls every time a character marks stress higher than one on any stress track) isn’t as punishing as it might otherwise be.

There are lots of other things I’m very into about the game, but those are the ones that really struck me.

System-wise, the one thing I think I would change running Spire in the future is to make exceptional successes do more. Inflicting extra stress is cool, but one of the strengths of Spire is that inflicting stress isn’t necessarily the go-to tactic for players. I tended to let exceptional rolls get the best possible outcome (they didn’t just get tickets to The Weeping Maiden, they got their pick of seats) but I feel that there could be a way to give it a little more crunch. My instinct is to say that it heals an appropriate point of stress or an extra point of stress if it was an exceptional on fixing someone (if the character doesn’t already have that kind of stress, too bad). So, they manage to make a little money along the way, or tell such a good lie it’ll be useful as a cover identity, or learn enough to refocus their mind away from the horrors they’ve witnessed, or enhance their reputation with some quick-witted repartee.

I also made custom fallouts along the way when nothing seemed appropriate – I would possibly smooth out the fallout curve a little personally, as I feel that someone being removed from the situation or blocked from doing anything in it (e.g. running away) is more than a minor fallout, because it reduces the player’s agency and ability to shape the narrative of that situation. The custom fallout I made was that the character temporarily lost access to the +1 slot they had from one of their resistances, and I have no idea whether that was too harsh or not, but it felt right and the player was cool with it.

The system is quite swingy, by its nature. If you roll with that, it can be great fun – our Idol had ridiculously good luck and barely accrued any stress for most of the game, but then fell into the [spoiler warning] machine at the end and got cursed when they failed exceptionally. And there was a brief but glorious little saga where the characters were attempting to buy a knife for the Vermissian Sage on the black market and they all, one after another, failed to do so (despite having good dice pools), leading to hilarious consequences. Anyone who’s played Chronicles of Darkness knows how much a d10-based system can defy probability, and Spire doesn’t start from the 2 dice+ of most CofD pools or add anywhere near as many dice. I could see this being frustrating for players, especially without an action-point-style mechanic to give them an extra edge when they really care about success, but since fun failure is an important part of the system’s design ethic, it makes a lot of sense. I feel that there is scope to give players a little more control over certain kinds of rolls, possibly through abilities, but I suspect that’s also me projecting my tendency towards giving players more resources to control success and failure rather than letting the dice fall where they may.

The quickstart recommends that the GM records the player characters’ stress tracks rather than the players doing so – I actually think this is a really cool idea (the reason stated is so the GM can say ‘you take a hefty wallop to the head’ rather than ‘you take 3 Blood stress’) but I found it unfeasible in the game I ran. The GM already has a lot of things to multitask, and certainly as someone running the rules and setting for the first time, I found I would end up either getting caught up in the narrative and missing marking stress or thinking a player had stress when they didn’t because I hadn’t changed something on my sheet. This would no doubt improve as famliarity with the game does, but with starting GMs, I’d suggest getting the players to keep track of their stress as well (or instead) so at the very least you have two checks to correct you when it goes by the wayside.

Spire was immense fun playing to find out what happened – as with Powered by the Apocalypse games (and most of my favourite story games), failure and stress were spurs to further action rather than stumbling blocks, and it felt like the design gave the space for crazy scrapes and dangerous escapades. Plus it was good at supporting the GM’s improvisations, which is a definite positive in my book. I felt that the toolkit approach to the world gave me the freedom to make things up myself on the fly, such as the verminous ratroaches that inhabit Derelictus and carry messages when trained. I love it when a game gives you the tools to sketch out a world but permission to add the detail yourself. I was sad that there were a few places that didn’t have obvious reasons for inclusion, but I guess if I’d realised that in advance I could have found ways to hook the characters in. Plus it was very dependent on the characters my players picked, since they all have some excellent reasons to investigate the plot.

I would really recommend using some visual aids for Blood an Dust, by the way – I drew a conceptual map of the adventure’s neighbourhoods, plus a relationship map with all the important people, places and groups on it for myself, and also used little named cards to represent NPCs that could sit on the table and the players could easily check. It’s an excellent set up, but there’s a lot of information to take in for the players and to remember as the GM – putting in a bit of prep to support yourself and the players is completely worth it!

Check the bottom of the page for a spoilery but important thing that came up in play.*

Would I recommend Spire? Hells yes. I’m biased towards something my friends produced, sure, but I also know an awesome setting when I see it, and it’s very far from your standard fantasy RPG. Dark fantasy, but without falling back on some of the cliches of that genre – the Kickstarter describes it as ‘D&D crossed with Unknown Armies, or Gormenghast crossed with Necromunda‘. It has a definite tone of the New Weird as well, with some descriptions reminding me a little of China Mieville or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but with its own unique twist. Spire is a weird, wonderful game set in a degenerate city full of potential for shenanigans and terrible trauma. Join the Ministry today!

Get in on the Kickstarter for Spire here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gshowitt/spire-rpg

* Spoilers for the very end of the adventure start here – beware, and definitely don’t read this section if you’re planning on playing Blood and Dust!

The Vermissian Sage’s hook into the plot is that the tunnels they usually use to access the Vermissian have been boarded up – my players decided it sounded fun to go and poke that first…and then I realised that they would potentially walk straight into the end plot. I could have potentially recovered from that and run a suspense game of ‘you know what was supposed to happen…but who did it?’, but without being able to take on the Councilman directly, since he’s one of the most powerful people in the city, it might have lacked a powerful ending. In the end, I had them run into one of the Engineers who were working the machines as she was using the Vermissian tunnels and she persuaded them to go back to Red Row with her, but it got a bit more rail-roady than I would have liked. Maybe have a plan for how to deal with them heading straight for the main plot, or change the Vermissian Sage’s hook a little.

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