"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Friday, March 9, 2018


SPIRE is weird. Spire is punk. Spire is a China Mieville novel read with a high fever, or Hunter S. Thompson writing a Lovecraft mythos tale. Spire is Drow, but Toto, we aren't in Menzoberranzan anymore. Spire is a light, fast, easy-to-play game system that is lethal as Hell but sickening good fun, parked in a setting which is the real star of the show. Authors Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor serve up a fantasy RPG here that doesn't try to be something for everyone, but instead lures you in a dazzles with a weird tale of rebellion, suffering, and sacrifice. 

THE SPIRE is a mile-high tower, an impossible city. No one really knows who built it, or even if "built" is the right word. Some whisper it is a dead god or a living thing. At its black heart, reality breaks down, a magical cancer that is slowly spreading through the structure. It used to belong to the Dark Elves, the Drow. But 200 years ago the Aelfir or "High Elves" invaded the city and conquered its inhabitants. Beautiful, graceful, inhuman, the High Elves live atop the Spire in their pleasure domes while below them the Dark Elves grovel and toil. The Aelfir have outlawed the old nocturnal gods of the Drow pantheon, all save Our Glorious Lady, the gentle mother goddess of the moon, and built shining temples to their own Solar pantheon instead. And when a young Drow comes of age, he or she must endure the Durance, four years of indentured servitude to a High Elf master or mistress. Even after the Durance, Drow lives are impoverished and bleak.

But now there is a shadow among the populace, whispers that blow through the alleyways and gutters. The cult of a forbidden goddess, the hidden dark moon, stirs and plots rebellion. Called the Ministry of our Hidden Mistress, it recruits in secrecy and spreads. The shining elites, in their gardens of privilege, name it "terrorism." The oppressed call it "revolution." Day by day the violence escalates. People die. One way or the other it will end in blood; the status quo will triumph or the Spire will fall.

In Spire, all the player characters are Drow, and all are members of the Ministry. They have dedicated themselves to throwing off the High Elf yoke, no matter the cost. Characters don't gain experience, they advance by furthering their cause and making changes--for better or for worse--in the Spire. And they do this at great personal risk, not just damaging their bodies and minds, but their purses, relationships, and sometimes even souls. 

In the same way that games in the 90s often had an apocalyptic feel, reflecting society's unease about the end of the millennium, Spire--intentionally or unintentionally--feels right at home in 2018. We live in a world of terrorist conspiracies, of rage against the machine. Extremist movements in the Islamic world, increasingly right-wing politics in Britain, Europe, and America, all these reflect the growing anger at the ever increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Drow of Spire may be nocturnal beings blistered by the rays of the sun, but we can relate to them. We can understand them. In a very real way, they are us.

SPIRE IS A FANTASY-PUNK GAME. Forget Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, the morality here is all gray. You won't be trudging between the local town and the dungeon; you live in the mega-dungeon, a magically fueled industrialist hive of tunnels and levels and warrens. Do not expect to be slaying monsters for their treasure. The adversaries in Spire are people--whether High Elf, their human minions, or other Drow--so killing them comes with questions and complications. If there is a consistent theme to the game it is "damage." As you attempt to hurt the High Elves, the personal costs to yourself mount and mount. It's a race to make sure you can do the most damage to them before it destroys you.

BECAUSE IT IS SO CENTRAL, DAMAGE is built right into the core mechanic of the game. To resolve any action, roll a d10. On a result of 1 to 5, you fail. On a 6 to 10, you succeed. Skills and Domain add extra d10s, allowing you to take the highest roll. In combat, for example, a character with the skill "Fight" would roll 2 d10s. A character trying to pick a guard's pocket would add their skill "Steal" and their domain "Crime" to roll 3 d10s.

Where the damage comes in is "Stress." On any roll less than 8 you are going to get some (meaning on a 1 to 5 you fail and take stress, while with a 6 or 7 you succeed and take some). A roll of 1 is the worst, as you take double the Stress. On a 10, you inflict extra Stress (when applicable) against your opponent. Depending on the stakes, the amount of stress might be a d3, a d6, or a d8. Stress comes in five varieties, based on the risk you are taking;

Blood stress is physical damage, picked up in fighting or exposing yourself to bodily harm.

Mind stress is mental damage, from psychological pressure, psychic attack, or Call of Cthulhu style sanity loss.

Silver stress is damage to your pocketbook, losing resources and property.

Shadow stress is exposure; you are a member of an underground terrorist cell, and Shadow stress exposes you to the authorities.

Reputation stress damages your credibility in a specific group or community.

How does this work? In a gutter-level dice game, a character might risk losing a little coin. The GM calls this d3 Silver stress. In a high stakes card game with wealthy High Elves, it might be d8 Silver stress. As another example, a character in a bare-knuckle street brawl risks just one point of Blood stress. In a sword fight, that risk would be d6 Blood stress.

Take the character in the sword fight. She rolls her dice (we will assume she has the Fight skill so she rolls 2d10 and takes the higher roll). Let's say she gets a 9. Terrific. She inflicts Blood stress on her opponent (a d6 since she is using a sword). If she rolled a 3, she would take Blood stress (again, d6 assuming her opponent has a sword). On a 6 or a 7, she would inflict and take Blood stress. Both sides get bloodied. 

The good news is, there are resistances. These are a bit like armor (an in the case of Blood stress, it could be armor), reducing the amount of Stress you take. Mind resistance might suggest supreme mental discipline. Silver resistance could indicate great resources. Whatever your resistance is, it helps protect you against that kind of Stress damage. Which brings us to Fallout.

FALLOUT is the injury Stress can inflict. Every time you take additional Stress, the GM rolls a d10 against your total. If the roll is lower than your current Stress, you suffer Fallout.

Fallout has two effects. On one hand, it immediately reduces your Stress. On the other, it inflicts a lasting consequence. Depending on how much Stress you had when the Fallout occurred, the Fallout will be Minor, Moderate, or Severe. These remove 3, 5, or 7 points of Stress but for a price.

Minor Blood Fallout might be "Bleeding" or "Stunned." Moderate Blood Fallout could be a "Broken Arm" or "Knocked Out." Severe Blood Fallout is something like "Dying." With Mind Fallout, Minor could be "Panicked," Moderate might be give you a new "Phobia," and Severe might make you "Obsessed." The book contains a healthy selection of Fallouts for each type of Stress, and ideas for creating your own. 

Under Spire's main rules, various types of Stress are pooled together for Fallout rolls. In other words, if you have 2 Silver stress, 1 Shadow stress, and 3 Blood stress, your total Stress is 6. The type of Fallout you take is usually based on the type of Stress inflicted at the time of the roll, unless something else makes sense. So in the case above, if a character takes 2 Mind stress, for a grand total of 8, and the GM rolls under this number, the character would suffer a Severe Mind Fallout, unless logic (or the plot) dictated another kind. This is pretty nasty...but it's a punk game, innit. If you want to run a game with less Fallout, their are variant rules for rolling against each type of Stress separately. 

Final note on Stress before we move on; it can be reduced without Fallout. If you've taken Blood stress, rest, first aid, or seeing a doctor can remove it. Getting a loan from your friends can reduce Silver stress, etc.

CHARACTERS IN SPIRE are created by picking a Durance and a Class. Durance is what you did during your four years of indentured servitude to your Aelfir masters. Class is what you do now. Your choice of Durance grants your character two of the following; Resistance to one kind of Stress, a skill, or a domain. Skills are things you can do, domains are things you know. Both add dice to rolls. For example, if you served as a "Guard," policing the Spire, you get +2 Reputation resistance and the domain "Order" (you know the laws and have contacts in the watch). If you were a "Personal Assistant" you get +2 Silver resistance and the skill "Compel" (getting people to do what you want).

Class is a much more character defining choice, offering multiple resistances, domains, and skills as well as core abilities, bonds, equipment, and advances. 

Core abilities are defining powers or talents unique to that particular class. The "Firebrand," a revolutionary rabble rouser, "Leads from the Front," getting an extra die to all actions when carry 6 or more points of stress, and can "Draw a Crowd" once per session, immediately gathering and audience around him or her. The "Knight" (a member of an ancient order of knights now devolved into little more than armored gangsters) gets "Pubcrawler," an encyclopedic knowledge of local drinking establishments, and "Pick a Fight," allowing him or her to know who is the best person in the area to pick a fight with if they want to 1) win, 2) impress, or 3) cause a distraction.

Bonds are relationships, both with NPCs and a PC.

Equipment is...well...you get that, don't you.

Advances are additional powers and abilities, ranked into three levels; Low, Medium, and High. Low advances are moderately useful and powerful, while High ones are real show-stoppers. But Spire doesn't use a level system; you pick up advances by making changes--good or bad--to the Spire. Clearing out a minor street gang might earn you a Low advance, while taking down a Spire-wide assassin's guild would earn a High one. Each class has a healthy selection of these, unlocking the full potential of the class.

The classes in Spire are weird, punk twists on familiar fantasy RPG tropes. All are woven into this specific setting. I mentioned the Firebrand and the Knight earlier because those take the least explanation...other classes are a bit more "unique."

The "Azurites," for example, dressed in their sacred blue and gold, are a merchant cult centered on the south docks. These characters are "traders, deal-makers, and hustlers," known throughout the Spire. "Carrion-Priests" are heretical death worshippers who believe the dead need to be eaten by sacred hyenas (you get one as an animal companion). "Idols" are occult-powered artists, celebrities whose work enraptures, enchants, and changes reality. The spider-blooded "Midwives" belong to an Order that raises children in the Spire, but are dedicated to the lives of all Drow. The "Vermissian Sages" are occult explorers of a Spire-wide public transportation system long abandoned...that now is bending and folding reality into pocket dimensions.

In short, there is nothing generic about these classes or characters. The classes are specific to the setting, and serve not just as conduits for growth and power but as channels into the Spire itself. Half the fun of them is the facets of life in the Spire that they reveal.

MOST OF THE BOOK, in fact, is the setting. Instead of bestiaries we get chapter after chapter of cults, personalities, neighborhoods, and factions...Academic, Occult, High Society, etc. These take up more than 80 pages of the 226-page book. Spire is like the titular city, a game and setting that you will enter and explore. Detail is lavished on it because the Spire itself is the megadungeon, the adversary, and the treasure, all at once. You are fighting the city throughout the city to win the city. I will not waste your time (or rob you of the fun) by saying too much about it, but one of the most compelling features about this game is the actual Spire itself. It's a setting brimming with strange ideas, weird twists on old ones, and nightmarish inversions of expectations. But of course, you have to expect that in a tale of Drow protagonists fighting those nasty High Elves. Ultimately the most compelling argument to buy, read, and play Spire is Spire itself.

Quibbles? I have a few. The book is so immersed in its setting that sometimes it forgets to explain the nuts and bolts. I am not sure Spire would be comprehensible to new or inexperienced players. The lay out isn't terribly clear. Spire wants to be evocative more than approachable. 

And it is, evocative. The art, the maps, the cults...it's page after page of deliciously dark fantasy. It's not for everyone; it doesn't want to be. But if you lean more towards Mieville and Moorcock than Tolkien or Salvatore, this is the game for you.


1 comment:

  1. Great review. Thanks for making the rules clear. Now to sell it to my players!