Spire – the game must be played

Spire, or more fully Spire: The City Must Fall is an RPG by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor of Rowan, Rook and Decard (don’t ask which one is which). In it, players are dark elves living in the namesake megapolis, their former capital taken over by high elves, or aelfir. The game is about the struggle to free the drow from the yoke of oppression, fomenting a revolution the PCs likely won’t live to see. It is my favorite RPG in a long time.

Mechanically, Spire is a curious mixture of by now traditional narrative game elements such as failing forward and success at a cost with more game-y bits like plentiful player options and swingy lethality of conflict. There’s been many attempts at marrying story games to D&D. Dungeon World faithfully recreated D&D in the Apocalypse World Engine. 13th Age took concentrated D&D and welded improv bits on the side, hoping they take root. Spire takes a different approach. It is a story game that shanked D&D in a dark alley, made a mask out of its face, then showed up to the game night pretending nothing has happened.

The core mechanics are somewhat similar to Blades in the Dark, which I reviewed recently. There’s a dice pool, made up of d10s in this case, only the highest die matters, and the results are broken into the familiar range of critical success (10), success (8-9), success at a cost (6-7), failure (2-5) and critical failure (1). You get a die in the dice pool just for showing up, plus one if you have the relevant skill, another if you have the relevant domain, and one more if you have mastery. Difficulty ranges from 0 for most tasks to 2 for the hardest, and subtracts dice from the dice pool.

Skills are what you can do, while domains are where or to whom you can do it. Domains include Academia, Occult, Crime, etc.. Mastery covers specific narrow expertise, like a knack gained by obtaining the same skill or domain twice, but also represents magical aid granted by many spells. There are a total of 9 skills and 9 domains, and a starting character gains 2 of each, plus up to 4 total of either, depending on the choices made. This leads to well defined areas of expertise as there’s no gradation of skill or domain level – you either have it or you don’t.

Spire handles failure similarly to Fate, in that it doesn’t dictate immediate consequences for every roll. Failing forward is mentioned as a good GMing practice, but not required by the rules. Instead, failure or the cost part of a success at a cost results in the character taking stress. There are a whopping five stress tracks: Blood, Mind, Silver, Reputation, and Shadow. However, compared to Spire, Fate is downright cosy when consequences do hit. In Fate, players have control over taking consequences, and can choose to concede a conflict any time before dice are rolled. In Spire, there are no easy outs and the best drow can do is hope.

Whenever a character takes stress, the GM rolls a d10 and compares the result to the sum of all stress that character now has. If the roll is lower, the character suffers fallout – accumulated abstract stress coalesces into a tangible consequence. The total amount of stress determines the severity of fallout, minor (2-4), moderate (5-8) or severe (9+), while the type of stress the character has most of determines the type of fallout – there’s a sample list of fallouts of each type and severity. This isn’t a hard rule, as the GM is free to pick a different type of fallout if it fits better, and Blood Magic mini supplement includes a list of Occult fallouts, opening the doors for even more and weirder outcomes.

Minor fallout typically goes away after a scene, moderate fallout requires some effort to get rid of, while severe fallout permanently warps or ruins the character, if not kills them outright. At least suffering fallout clears some stress: 3 for minor, 5 for moderate and 7 for severe. This leads to a peculiar situation where players want to suffer minor fallout as much as possible – it’s not too bad, and certainly beats walking around with massive stress, just waiting for an anvil to drop. Other methods of clearing stress include actually spending time engaging in an activity that would help, like aiding your neighbors to remove Reputation stress, taking time off to clear all stress while the plot advances without you, and fulfilling the refresh condition of your class: e.g. engage in reckless excess if you’re a Knight. The grander the refresh, the greater the size of the die you’ll roll to clear stress. I don’t think my players have ever rolled higher than 1, no matter what die I give them.

As you can see, stress is deadly. Thankfully, many abilities give characters free stress slots in specific tracks that can be filled as normal but don’t count when rolling for fallout. Armor works similarly, offering free Blood slots which clear at the end of each scene. Keeping track of it all can get a bit fiddly, especially as the rules suggest the GM do it by themselves, only giving players a general impression of how much trouble they’re in. There’s a webpage that can handle this, but it lacks some important features like clearing armor slots or bypassing them due to magic or weapon property. In the end, I’ve opted for the more familiar mode where players keep track of their own stress, but that’s a matter of preference.

Stress is dealt randomly, from 1 for the most trivial things to 1d8 for something like being hit with a greatsword, so an unlucky character can suffer severe fallout after just one bad roll. This would appear to be a prime example of goblin dice – high variance rolls well suited for determining the fate of goblins, but misapplied to determine the fate of heroes as well. And unlike the similarly deadly OSR games, there’s no emphasis on player skill enabling characters to avoid ever rolling the dice in the first place. And yet it works in Spire, because while the characters are certainly not inconsequential goblins, they are not fated heroes either. They are drow: beautiful, competent, brave… expendable. Their lives are volatile and unstable, much like the city they inhabit. Always one roll away from turmoil.

“This is not a kind world,” the book says in the section titles Things To Know, right after introducing the reader to the setting, and I’d recommend reading that entire page out loud at the start of the very first game. “This is going to kill you.” But also “You are going to hurt people,” and there’s a way to avoid taking stress after all – have someone else do it for you. Instead of emphasizing player skill, the system emphasizes character choice. They could walk away, trade the fight for freedom for a safer life. Instead, they choose to stand up for their people – or let them take the fall. Illustrating this, the Firebrand, a quintessential revolutionary class, can gain an ability called Untouchable which allows them to transfer Blood fallout to a non-enemy NPC present in the scene. “Whether they willingly sacrificed themselves or you managed to get behind them in time is up to you.”

That ability is not the exception – character classes positively drip with flavor. Carrion-Priests with their sacred hyenas; Azurites, priests of the god of commerce who can buy literally anything; Knights, whose quests typically involve mystic pubs; the absolutely terrifying Midwives… If I were to list all the abilities I love, I’d have to retype half the book. Even abilities that mainly give free stress slots help paint a picture, like The Secret of Lucky Breaks the Bound can take, which gives them one of each of Mind and Reputation free slots, but also means they always have a little bit of liquor in their bottle, three cigaretes in their pocket, and a dry match. Oh, yeah. Bound are vigilantes with small gods in their gear. Think Batman who chats to batarangs.

By limiting the game to the eponymous city, Spire can make every class unique. Unlike D&D that has to be as generic a heroic fantasy as possible, unlike Apocalypse World that has a vision of its genre but leaves the world undefined, Spire is unapologetically itself. Turns out, confidence is appealing. The Knight is not an archetypical knight. They are a member of an ancient Order dedicated to protecting the Docks, long since devolved into drunken thuggery, the only ones still allowed to bear a greatsword in the city. The Vermissian Sage is not an archetypical sage. They’re a student of a non-Eucledian train system running under the skin of Spire, and the best ones learn to find their way into the Glass Library in its depths where ambient information condenses into books. There I go retelling the book again.

And classes aren’t even my favorite part. No, if I had to pick, it would be the way the game handles characters stepping outside the bounds of their classes. Spire delivers on the promise of prestige classes made all the way back in D&D 3e – reflecting the character growth and the roles they take up in the world. Join an organization, a religion, a cult, a ghoulish monster living under the streets, and you get access to the extra advances they offer, simple as that. You still have to earn these advances, so there’s very little reason not to be generous with these memberships. Characters gain the associated refresh condition as well, but they have to actually fulfill it to benefit, at which point they’re doing what they’re meant to – driving the game forward. As there’s no mechanical cost for characters to gain access to these extra advances, they are free to go wherever their story takes them.

Reading endless prestige classes in D&D always felt like looking at toys in a shop: they certainly seem cool, but chances of actually playing with most of them are almost nil. And so they sat there, gathering dust behind the thick glass of mechanics. Extra advances in Spire, on the other hand, are handed out like a razor-filled bowl of candy on a Halloween night. Put your hand in, see what happens.

As a side note, I already wrote one extra advance for my game, and have plans for a few more. Stay tuned.

All this talk of advances, but how do characters actually advance? By changing Spire. The greater the change, the greater the advance – they are ranked as low, medium and high. Reflecting the central theme of revolution and its uncertainties, it doesn’t have to be a change for the better. What does it mean to change the city? How do you cause change under an oppresive regime? That’s something the group has to decide by themselves. “Subvert, don’t destroy,” another Thing To Know, warns about futility of hasty violence. Killing a drug dealer poisioning their own kind may feel good, but there’ll be a different one on the same corner tomorrow. “There’s always another level.” Change too much, stand too tall, and the aelfir will cut you down.

The rules for advancement, elegant and thematic as they are, may be too smart for their own good. The inherent contradiction of wanting easy victories while striving for lasting change may reflect hard choices revolutionaries face, but is not great for players who have to choose between fun abilities now and success later. And sometimes they simply go for sessions engaged in personal conflicts or investigating mysteries, not changing the city. Or fight to prevent some horrorific plot, preserving the status quo. With so many awesome abilities to gain, it feels like a let down to not actually gain them. Maybe we’re not thinking like revolutionaries yet. Thankfully, it’s trivial to add other advancement criteria that fit your game, or simply give out a low advance every now and then.

What of Spire itself? We’re confined to the city, so interesting classes and functional mechanics won’t save the game if the city is not worth saving. At the start, I thought this was going to be a one campaign game. We’d play through one of the adventures on offer (more on them in a bit), see most of what there’s to see in Spire, die for the revolution and that’ll be that. Then I discovered more than half of the book is dedicated to the setting. There’s a lot more to see in Spire than a few sessions would allow. And it is worth seeing!

Spire mixes horror with whimsy, violence with joy, oppression with freedom. It is built on the foundation of familiar D&D cliches, with drow, high elves, demons, gnolls, and all things fantasy, so you won’t feel lost. Yet it is undeniably its own thing: aelfir always wear masks, drow hatch from cocoons, gnolls are renowned demonologists, and demons kill everything around them in the brief moment of existence within our world. There’s always a twist, an unexpected direction, a cool combination. A rotten unreal Heart buried deep below pulses throughout Spire, suffusing it with weirdness and terror. So of course drow used its energies to run trains. It didn’t go well.

The setting description is organized by the domain. As Spire resembles a giant skyscraper, it is split into layers. Each layer has its own unique character and mostly belongs to a single domain. As characters gain an extra die while within a domain they’re proficient with, location matters a whole lot more than in most other games. We place the absolutely gorgeous maps by Tim Wilkinson Lewis in the middle of the table, and the place gains substance, feels almost real. As a side note, together with the map of Sunless Sea, the walls of my room are now covered with imagined places I’ve visited. I’m more than okay with that.

It may seem counterintuitive to base a game focused on improvisation in a detailed setting. It’s certainly opposite to the approach other improv games I’ve played take. But Spire manages to be detailed without being confining. The book, full of information as it is, is just a glimpse into the vast megapolis. It contains a multitude of ideas to be thrown at players while leaving even more space in the margins to add our own.

The written adventures the game calls campaign frames function in a similar manner, or at least Eidolon Sky, which we’re about to wrap up, does. There’s the outline of the underlying plot, the plot threads PC can stumble upon and what they’ll find out if they pull on them, and a list of NPCs and situations that can come up. What you do with this box of toys is up to you. I’ve found it a great resource for running an improv campaign, stumbling in and out of the plot, getting distracted by everything else in Spire.

Finally, presentation and art style is not something I normally cover in a game. I appreciate it, just don’t have much to say about it. And while that remains true, I feel the need to mention the stunning full-page illustrations by Adrian Stone. It is a great looking game.

Spire offers an impossible cause, and dares you to hope. It invites its players to become revolutionaries, but doesn’t dictate what that means. Will your refresh the tree of liberty with blood of patriots and tyrants, or lead a senseless and merciless revolt? One thing’s certain: Spire will be changed. The city must fall.

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