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.

Blades in the Dark – haunted by greatness

Blades in the Dark is the New Hot Roleplaying Thing. Written by John Harper and published by Evil Hat, it is a game about a crew of scoundrels in a haunted industrial city. While not directly Powered by the Apocalypse, it is a descendant of Apocalypse World. And just like its predecessor, it has spawned a plethora of adaptations to various settings, though only Scum & Villainy, a spacefaring game, is currently out. What sets it apart?

Much like its honored ancestor, BitD is a game focused on delivering a specific experience. The player characters are engaged in a criminal enterprise, with the ultimate goal to get rich and get out before the going gets too rough. And to get rich, they have to build an underworld empire. As far as hooks go, that’s a good one. It’s surprising how few games try to have players develop something other than their characters. But before we get to empire building, lets look at how the game itself is played. Get comfortable, this will be in-depth.

While the core mechanic offers the by now familiar gradation of success/success at a cost/failure, it uses a dice pool determined by the relevant action rating. The action ratings range from 0 (roll two dice, pick lowest) to 4, and there are 12 of them in total, split among 3 categories or attributes: Insight, Prowess, and Resolve. The definitions of what action ratings cover are somewhat vague on purpose, to allow players to try and argue their case for using a higher rating because of the way they approach the task. This works a bit too well – we end up arguing about which rating is appropriate more than I would have liked.

After you settle on a rating to use, you can get help from another PC as they take 1 stress for one bonus die, and push yourself and take 2 stress or accept a devil’s bargain – some complication that arises as a result of your actions for another bonus die. In many games, teamwork is an afterthought, offering a trivial bonus. In BitD, it often doubles the die pool and is cheaper in terms of stress than toughing it yourself. Even selfish characters (and they are all anti-heroes at best) jump at the chance to help out, as they know they’ll need help in turn. With a simple rule the game beautifully reinforces the group dynamic: it’s all of you together against the world.

Of all the dice you roll, only the highest matters with 6 being a success, 4-5 success at a cost and 1-3 a failure (well, unless you got two 6s, a critical success). Here’s where it gets unusual, however: the GM sets the position the character’s in and the effect the action is going to have. Position can be controlled, risky or desperate, with risky being the default. It affects just how badly things will go when the dice inevitably betray the characters. Worsening position is a common outcome of a bad roll. Whereas effect, which can be great, standard, or limited (technically also zero or extreme, but at that point common sense usually takes over), is the sum of potency – just how well suited your method is to the task at hand, scale – how large an area you’re trying to cover or how many opponents you’re trying to overcome, and quality – the difference in tiers between you and the target. More on that last one later. After everything is factored in, characters can push themselves and take 2 stress to increase the effect by one level or trade position for effect in either direction, meaning there’s always something they can do, even against insurmountable odds, so long as they have stress to burn or risks to take.

Quite a lot of dials, and a significant departure from the way PbtA games usually handle difficulty. In them, there are no situational modifiers to rolls, with difficulty typically reflected in the potential outcomes or narrative requirements to even be able to make the roll. See for instance these questions. That is, in PbtA games it’s largely left up to the GM to figure out how to frame the situation and reflect the difficulty through narrative means. BitD, however, offers a robust system that answer questions like “how do we handle trying to pick an expensive lock with custom-made tools while the room burns around us?”

Well, almost. In practice, I’ve struggled with what a “limited effect success” means a lot. Even the example offered by the book comes down to “you have to roll twice”, which isn’t very satisfying.

In addition to action rolls, there are fortune rolls which are meant to cover situations where PCs aren’t directly involved, or the outcome is uncertain and no other roll applies. It is a “zoomed out”, more abstract mechanic, as it doesn’t have positions or initial effect levels. Instead, the die pool is made up of whatever number seems appropriate, most often tier of the faction or phenomena acting, or action rating of a PC. At this level of abstraction, major advantages and disadvantages that would have contributed to setting position and effect level were it an action roll simply add or subtract dice. The end result is still determined by the highest die, and still broken up into similar ranges.

Did you catch the bit where a PC’s action rating is sometimes used for a mechanic which is explicitly meant to be about uncertain outcomes not directly linked to any action ratings? It’s a bit odd. In practice, fortune rolls are used by the PCs a whole lot, as they cover gathering information among other things, a major activity in a heist-ish game.

Progress clocks are another part of the core mechanics. They offer a simple way of tracking progress of long-term projects, complex obstacles or things like alarm level. The GM determines how many segments such a clock should have, and fills them in accordance with the rolls. Once the clock is filled, the project is completed or the event occurs. While not fundamentally different from, say, required number of successes in in D&D 4e skill challenges, progress clocks are much more visual. I’ve previously seen progress clocks in Apocalypse World 2e, and have no idea if they were present in the first edition or other games. In BitD, they are much more integrated into the rules, with many downtime activities relying on them. When trying to fill a clock, the effect level of a check determines the number of segments filled, 1 for limited, 2 for standard and 3 for great effect.

And finally, tiers. Everything and everyone has a tier in BitD, even if the fact isn’t particularly advertised. Factions have tiers and everything they own derives its tier from them. These range from 6 for Imperial Military to 0 for where PCs start – armed to the teeth with ambition and not much else. Tiers are mostly used when setting the effect level of an action or when making up a die pool for a fortune roll of a faction, including thugs PCs may hire.

I went into so much detail explaining the rules for a reason. While reading them, a neat picture starts to form. Tiers and effect levels, dice and clocks, it’s all about to come together, it’ll all click and make total sense once you comprehend the mechanics in their entirety and you’ll never need to look up rules again. Except it doesn’t. Action and fortune rolls are related and share terminology, yet they’re not quite equivalent. Further, the many fortune and fortune-like rolls scattered throughout the rulebook each have their own caveats.

Stress can buy you an extra die or greater effect. Your band’s tier helps determine the effect level, unless it determines how many dice you roll. Fictional situation determines the position, which can be traded for effect, unless it gives (or takes away) extra dice. Are dice equivalent to effect levels? Sort-of-not-quite-maybe. In action rolls, a 6 is a success at the negotiated effect level, by default standard i.e. equal to your tier; 4-5 can result in limited effect, while a critical success offers greater effect. In fortune rolls, 4-5 is the effect equal to your tier, 1-3 is tier-1, 6 is tier+1 and a critical success is tier+2 – everything’s shifted upwards. During downtime actions you can spend Coins after the roll to bump up the result to the maximum of “critical success” or tier+2. When you acquire assets, you can keep going, but have to pay 2 Coins per further tier. When you craft something, on the other hand, you only pay 1 Coin per increase in tier.

Confused yet? For a game with relatively light mechanics, there’s a lot of page flilpping each session. If I get sufficiently annoyed at this mess, I’ll try my hand at a Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark (EDIT: yup, got sufficiently annoyed). And just to clarify, the individual rules are perfectly fine, create dramatic situations, and make sense. It’s only when one tries to synthesize comprehension does the system falter.

But let’s move on to the part of the game that’s not just “fine” but outright great. The game recognizes an issue most groups have struggled with when faced with a chance to make a plan. That’s where action grinds to a halt. Left to their own devices, players can endlessly go over all the what-ifs, unable to distinguish between the real obstacles they’d have to face that the GM invented and the hypothetical obstacles they invented themselves. Until, frustrated, they are pushed by the GM to settle on a solution which of course is nowhere near the solution that’s anywhere near what the GM thinks will work. We’ve lost a city this way, back in D&D 4e days.

It is basically the same world modeling problem that I wrote about way back when at the start of the blog. (7 years ago?? Wow). Every person playing the game has a slightly differing idea of how the game world works in their head. Trying to predict potential futures from slightly different perspectives using slightly different rules results in vastly different outcomes. But the worlds in players’ heads are similar enough that they don’t recognize the futility of this plotting.

“Forget all that,” says BitD, “Your characters are professionals. They have a plan. Jump in, and we’ll find out what it is.” Once players establish what they actually want to do, they work with the GM to figure out what type of engagement it’s going to be (assault/deception/stealth/etc), a missing detail like the point of attack, and make an engagement (fortune) roll which determines their position when they face the first obstacle.

When inevitably things start to go south, players can declare they have accounted for this eventuality in a flashback – maybe they bribed the local Bluecoats patrol beforehand, or stashed a weapon in this exact spot. The more extensive and unlikely the preparations, the more stress they have to pay. Likewise, they don’t need to decide what gear they have, just the overall amount of stuff hanging off them. As they need specific items, they simply declare they’ve had them all along, up to the stated limit.

This approach almost works, though this time it’s my group’s fault. They want to be really careful, which has at times resulted in them aborting a mission as they learn more about it. “There’s a chance we’ll make an enemy here? We’d never do this if we knew, so we didn’t.” The game fully expects you’ll make enemies, however, as you track your standing with various factions of Doskvol, and pretty much anything you gain you take from someone else. Getting my players (to be fair, not my regular group, so we’re not as used to each other’s style) to accept they can’t lead a cozy safe life as criminals has been a challenge. But, as mentioned, that’s our problem, not the game’s.

Once the PCs are done thievin’ and murderin’ and the score is wrapped up, the game goes into the most formalized part – downtime. Here, the group figures out the money, reputation, xp, and law’s attention the crew has earned, rolls to see what the world throws at them in the meantime, and finally each player performs two downtime actions such as working on a long-term project or removing stress. Yup, stress doesn’t clear on its own, so you end up paying for all the risks you took. This part of BitD has more in common with strategic games than roleplaying – think management elements of X-Com or Darkest Dungeon between missions.

By offering rules for the “in-between” stuff that would have been handwaved in most other games, BitD both limits it and makes it more important. Players are put firmly in charge of their own destiny. There’s probably no world-ending threat. No mysterious strangers ready to dispense quests. But there’s also no cops conveniently forgetting about the crew. No simply making a thing you’ve been meaning to make. There’s just ambition and survival. Want it? Earn it.

There’s a bit of a missed opportunity here, I think. Downtime has too much survival to it, and not enough ambition. It would have been relatively easy to offer a mechanical way for players to spend downtime actions preparing for a tougher score – create a pool of free “stress points” to spend on flashbacks, a bonus to the engagement roll, or temporarily raise the crew’s tier for specific purposes, for instance. There’s some discussion of having to do a research project or even a whole other score to undertake a score in the book, but it’s all left up to the GM.

In a tightly regulated game where every misfortune is a result of a choice or a roll, every obstacle’s magnitude is derived from the tier of opposition, and even actions of said opposition are determined by an entanglement roll, it doesn’t feel right to just heap more trouble on the PCs. It’s the subtle difference between “they’re powerful and secretive, let’s say you have to research them before you can even think of robbing them” and “they’re two tiers stronger than you, rules say you have to do a 6-segment research clock to find an approach.”

GM fiat is a tricky subject. There’s always going to be a need to interpret the rules, it’s not a board game after all. Yet at times I’ve felt like I had too much power in my hands when choosing the consequences of a failed roll – a strange position for a GM to find oneself in. In a desperate position I could say a character broke their leg, or that things got somehow even worse, or the party has simply lost this opportunity. Considering the impact of harm and how long it takes to heal it, these are rarely equivalent outcomes.

When players roll well, they get to do what they wanted. When they roll poorly, it turns into a game of double-or-nothing. Stakes for failure keep escalating, while success still offers the same reward of doing what they intended to do in the first place. And that’s cool! The problem, and there really isn’t an easy solution to it, is that it’s always the GM that decides when the betting is over and the bill is due to be paid. Would be interestig to see a similar system that places this decision in the hands of players.

But we got sidetracked. To balance out the mounting criticisms of the game, here’s another feature that I love: crews as characters. At the start of the campaign, the players collectively decide on the “class” of their crew – what kind of scores they typically engage in. Just like with a regular character, this determines the abilities and upgrades the crew will have access to. It gets its own character sheet, xp, upgrades, and assets.

Again, the thing that’s typically handwaved in other games is provided with solid mechanics, giving it the attention it deserves. Crew rules, I believe, are singlehandedly the reason for the game’s popularity and its upcoming adaptations. Well, that and a successful kickstarter. While I’m sure there are other examples, I can only think of Ars Magica and REIGN as games where you get to together build something in a meaningful way. One is very heavy, the other is very light, BitD may well have found a sweet spot. And this format is very expandable, whether it’s a spaceship or an adventuring organization that you’re building.

After all this time dedicated to the mechanics, what about the setting itself? Doskvol is interesting, if just a bit barren. It’s all about the ghosts. The larger world is epic and bleak, though that doesn’t quite translate to the game. The sun is gone, the ghosts roam the wastes and bodies have to be burnt in special electric fires to prevent even more ghosts from arising. Electricity? Comes from demon whales humans hunt in the pitch-black sea. Metal.

Living in this metal world are industrial age people, largely unaffected by the craziness around them. Sure, there’s an electric wall around their city holding the ghosts at bay, and its streets are perpetually lit by electric lights, but they still go about their business. While reassuring in a way, it seems like the author started painting the world with grand gestures, but never got around to the finishing touches that would have made the entire picture shine. With bleakness.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a horror-adjacent game that’s not Lovecraftian. On the other, ghosts just aren’t that varied as antagonists. There’re demons too, and those are quite scary, but there’s only so many a party can meet before they simply die. One, typically. There’re vampires, but those are just ghosts in bodies. Somehow, a steampunk world with criminals, magic, and ghosts feels empty after a while. Maybe I’m insufficiently familiar with the haunting tropes. There’s something creepy happening, must be a ghost. Booo.

I wish there was more. More (any!) examples of different ghosts, more craziness in the city itself, more character to its districts. These things are not entirely absent: there’s faction write ups and lots of random tables for ghost and demon attributes, plots and plot complications, streets and buildings and people. But most of these haven’t translated into actually useable material at our virtual table. Perhaps it’ll be different for you. To avoid sounding too negative, here’s a thing I greatly appreciated: the list of setting-appopriate names in one of the appendices. A small thing to be sure, but I’ve used it every session, and wish more games did it.

How does all of this fit together? The heists, the crew, the city itself? Say it with me: it almost works. Well, no. It works, and works really well, for a while. The greatest issue I have with Blades in the Dark, and if you got this far you know I have plenty, is that it outstays its welcome. There isn’t a natural ending point to a campaign in Doskvol. The book suggests a generic goal of accumulating wealth and retiring before you go mad, but that runs contrary to the much more interesting goal of advancing the crew. Here, the progression system plays a cruel trick.

Your crew can advance in tiers! It would take a whole lot of games, but you can end up running the entire city! There’s no grand overarching plot by design, as it’s all player-driven and improvisational. Unlike many other narrative games, BitD explicitly asks players to discover their characters through play, not start with a thought-out complex personality with goals and issues. Instead, they start with a few notes like the names of an ally and a rival. As PCs are dragged into the action we learn more about them, bit by bit. To the game’s credit, this part is really smart – when making certain rolls, players can get a bonus if there’s someone who can help them, *nudge-nudge*. At the same time, it means these allies mostly only show up for that one roll.

“Seasons”, as the book calls them, come to an end when most ongoing story threads are resolved. However, it inevitably feels like the time to get back to basics and make money now that the distractions are dealt with, rather than the time to wrap it all up. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if not for the other side of it: there’s only so many improvisational one-off heist stories about ghosts I can come up with before it gets stale; and given crew specializations, most of them have to be a specific kind of heist to boot – thieves gonna thieve, dealers gonna deal. Yet the reputation tracker keeps drawing us further in. There’s tiers to gain, upgrades to earn. Play one more score, go on. Ah, progression systems.

Paradoxically, the strongest feature of Blades in the Dark, crew rules, is also the root cause of its issues. That’s emblematic of the game as a whole – it holds many great ideas only slightly tarnished by the execution. And to be clear, I’ve had lots of fun with BitD. Here’s to a second edition.

First Impressions – Gloomhaven

With two fantastically successful kickstarters behind it and a #1 spot on Board Game Geek’s top 100 list, Gloomhaven is the current darling of the hobby. Designed by Isaac Childres, it is a monumental board game, largest and heaviest of boxes I own. A tactical dungeoncrawling game with persistent world and character advancement, essentially a D&D campaign in a box. I’ve played 27 scenarios so far with my brother, and while we’re nowhere near done, there probably aren’t any major surprises, mechanics-wise, hiding in the box by now. Time for a first impressions review.

There will be minor spoilers ahead.

Tactics on top

At the heart of the game are combat scenarios. There are 95 of them in the book, plus a deck of randomizing cards to make your own. Each scenario comes with a map made up of chunky terrain tiles and smaller terrain features such as fallen logs, traps, chests, etc., split by a hexagonal grid. Scenarios have decently varying win conditions: kill boss/kill all enemies/loot specific treasure/get to exit/etc. Some even have special rules, like constantly spawning enemies or locked doors you have to open by pressing a button in another room. You won’t get 95 unique experiences here, there’s rarely a need to radically rethink your tactics, but the game has enough variety not to feel stale.

The scenarios scale the number of monsters to the number of players, and their level to the party’s average level and desired difficulty. Monsters’ level doesn’t simply increase their hit points and damage, but gives them features like poisonous attacks, damage resistance, or simply increased speed – and an ooze that goes from speed 1 to speed 2 is that much harder to kite. The challenge adjusts with the levels to accomodate the increasingly powerful characters.

This shifting balance is one of the most impressive features of the game. With very rare exceptions, the difficulty felt just right to us, games often coming down to the wire even as our characters leveled up or the party composition changed.

Quick tabletop quality paint job, don’t @ me

Each character comes with their own miniature and a deck of ability cards. With levels, characters gain access to more powerful cards, but the total number of cards they can take with them into a scenario never changes. Players start the scenario with all their ability cards in hand. These cards are split in two, typically with attack on top and movement on the bottom, and an initiative number between them. Each turn, players pick two cards out of their hand and reveal them simultaneously, with the leading card deciding their initiative. When their turn comes around, the player chooses the top ability from one of the two cards, and the bottom ability from the other. There’s always an option to substitute them for the basic “fight 2” or “move 2”.

Depending on the ability, the played cards are either discarded or lost for the remainder of the scenario – unless of course another ability or item brings them back. Discarded cards, on the other hand, can be brought back by choosing to have a rest. Short rest occurs at the end of a turn and loses you a random card, whereas a long rest takes the entire turn but heals the character a bit, refreshes their used items and lets them choose which card they lose. It quickly becomes apparent that managing the ability cards to make sure you have enough to actually complete the scenario is a key tactical consideration. You could clear the room with a powerful blast, but maybe it’s better to take an extra turn, suffer a few points of extra damage, but save the card for the next go around.

Monsters get their own ability decks, one per monster type. These are suitably varied and combine with the monster stats to make sure each creature poses its own tactical challenge. Monster ability cards are drawn at the same time as player ability cards are revealed, introducing uncertainty while offering a chance to adapt to it. It’s very satisfying to avoid a monster’s attack by staying just out of reach, and frustrating to waste a turn because the enemy zigged when you prepared for a zag. That’s where the true mastery of the game lies, in having a backup plan in case the monsters decide to do something unexpected.

Attacks are resolved by drawing from an attack modifier deck which adjusts the basic attack number one way or another and can have other effects. Each player gets one, and monsters get their own. Yes, this game is full of decks. As characters gain perks from completing battle goals and leveling up, they get to modify this deck. The list of possible modifications is, again, unique to each character and ranges from removing or adding certain numbers to applying status effects with the attack. Curses (zero damage) and blessings (double damage) that are gained through other abilities or events also get mixed into these decks.

Finally, there are 6 elements that are created by certain abilities and consumed by others for extra effect. As you can’t use the element you’ve just created, and the elements fade after two turns, you have to plan ahead to set up a combo for yourself or your party members, and hope monsters don’t use these elements first. This subsystem is a bit fiddly, but satisfying when you actually pull it off on purpose. More often than not, it’s just a bonus that occurs unintentionally. Element management would probably get more involved with 4 players creating and consuming elements left and right.

Each character we’ve played with so far has been very different, from a fairly stereotypical caster and a tank to a summoner and an angry earth elemental that creates obstacles on the battlefield, then proceeds to throw them at enemies. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what other classes bring to the table.

Lots of elements and subsystems, how does it fit together? Like a dream. Once the rules click for you, this behemoth of a game soars. The scenarios are tense, full of difficult decisions and satisfying moments when plans come together. Battle goals (yet another deck) and coins dropped by enemies add an extra complication, forcing the players to weight the extra little bit of advancement that will be useful in further games against taking a risk here and now. I wouldn’t call the combat puzzle-like, as that implies there’s a correct solution to it. Rather, I’d say it’s almost chess-like, with long-term consequences to every move. A typical scenario takes about an hour to play through, but you’ll hardly notice the time pass.

Campaign on bottom

Spoiler: there are locations on this map.

All the combat scenarios occur in and around the eponymous Gloomhaven, a fantasy trade hub and a bastion of civilization. I’d be very surprised if the world of Gloomhaven wasn’t Isaac’s homebrew D&D setting. While you won’t find the common elves and dwarves here, there are not-orcs and not-gnomes as well as omnipresent humans, but also occasionally psychic ratfolk, elemental heart people, civilized tieflings and the like. It would have been nice to have some sort of primer like the one linked in the game itself, as it just throws terms at you and expects you to figure it out.

By and large, the world isn’t crazy enough for it to matter: there’s various people, undead, demons, dragons, etc., all behaving roughly how you’d expect. Not once did we feel like our growing familiarity with the setting was in any way rewarded, at least so far. Perhaps there could have been events that challenged the players to demonstrate their understanding of the world by, for instance, following the proper etiquette when meeting Inox tribal leaders. Not that the game needs this kind of challenge, but it would justify having a unique setting.

While that’s wishful thinking (there will be more of it), there’s a perfect vehicle for this kind of test in the game – city and road event decks. These start at 30 cards each, and you draw one followed by the other each time you set out on an adventure. Each card presents a situation, followed by two options. The outcomes, printed on the back of each card, can take into account your reputation (from +20 to -20), what characters you have in the party (which makes 4-player parties more likely to succeed), or simply your willingness to part with gold. In turn, you may be rewarded or penalised with status effects for the next scenario, new cards in the event decks, access to new scenarios, etc. Some cards get put on the bottom of their decks, others are permanently removed from the game. There’s a larger set of cards waiting for their turn to be added, which may happen due to scenarios being completed, characters retiring, and so on.

Characters retire once they complete their life goal, which comes from yet another deck of cards, and features goals such as “kill 20 elite monsters” and “complete x scenarios in a specific region” – something you’re meant to pursue for 10-20 games. These life goals also unlock new characters, though you’re not obligated to immediately pick them.

As you complete scenarios and random events, you will occasionally increase Gloomhaven’s prosperity, which adds new items to the city shop, unlocks yet more scenarios and a bit of plot from a separate booklet, and determines the starting level of new characters. The latter helps avoid having to advance through the lower levels over and over, and prevents a new character from being completely outclassed by the veterans in the party.

Each scenario is represented with a sticker on the foldout map, to be ticked once completed. At any given time you’re likely to have 5 or more open scenarios to choose from: side quests, plot branches, prerequisites. Every now and then, your choices lock you out of attempting a scenario – can’t help the dragon if you killed it. This leads to a silly fear of missing out on content in a game brimming with it. This great fan-made mostly spoiler-less scenario flowchart shows the branching of the main plotlines, an impressive sight.

So far, we haven’t encountered any “bugs” in the way scenarios are linked and locked, always a fear in this kind of a game. On the other hand, there are a bunch of scenarios we can’t do anymore, but are hesitant to cross off as game state might change in the future, unlocking them. It would have been helfpul for the scenario book to note when we’ve definitely locked ourselves out of a scenario.

Finally, on top of the map there is space for global achievement stickers which track the change in the state of the world and overall plot, like the current rulership of Gloomhaven, fate of an unspecified artifact, and familiarity with ancient technology (interact with it enough times and you’ll get to open a sealed envelope).

There’s a whole bunch of progression systems here: random event decks, access to scenarios, prosperity, character progression, equipment. Trouble is, players have barely any strategic control over any of it. Progression happens on its own as you play, creeping inexorably onwards. You can pursue plot lines to their completion, some of life goals care about locations, but that’s about it. There’s rarely a reason to pick an available scenario over the next one, as their payouts are unknown unless you cheat a bit and look ahead. And even if you do, it doesn’t usually matter. Whichever scenario you choose, you’ll always gain some xp and gold, and often one or more other things. This is a huge missed opportunity which undermines the entire point of a progression system.

Progression system keeps players coming back, in a way that simply having a massive book of scenarious wouldn’t. A large part of that is a sense of ownership, of making decisions, setting and reaching goals. Unfortunately, that’s missing in Gloomhaven. There’s a map, but locations don’t mean anything. There’re choices, but they only determine whether you do one scenario or another. There’re consequences, but they’re confined to a single card added to an event deck, to be drawn some time in the next 30 or so games and removed form the game forever. Even the seemingly major consequences you can get at the end of a plot line at most modify your reputation and town’s prosperity a bit, and add a sticker to the board. There’s even a scavenger hunt for a [REDACTED], yet it adds up to playing scenarios until you get all the pieces.

Putting stickers on a board does not a legacy game make. Neither does having a map a campaign make.

It’s understandable the designer didn’t want to mess too much with the tactical core of the game, but I think the campaign layer could have been much more meaningful without disrupting the tactics layer, and without making an already complex game much more complicated. Following are a few ideas, and bear in mind ideas are easy, implementation is hard, and there could well be good reasons why nothing like this was put into the final game.

Use the regions of the map: have a separate road event deck for each of them, just a few cards to make sure they come up regularly. Modify it as the state of that region changes. Tired of being ambushed by bandits? Go and deal with their hideout to remove their card. Tie a unique resource to each region that you gain whenever you do a scenario there, to be used for specific town upgrades instead of the generic prosperity. Want better weapons? Go adventure in the mountains to get that ore. Have global effects, even if they’re small, like adding a curse card to everyone’s attack modifier decks while a Bad Thing is happening. Basically, give players a reason to choose one scenario over another, to feel like they’ve accomplished something that’s not just ticking a box on the map.

Physical aspect

The elephant of a box in the room. Gloomhaven is a huge game, largest in my collection. That’s not a problem on its own (though don’t repeat my mistake of trying to bring it via public transport to a friend’s place). No, the problem is that the box is not enough. Here’s what it looks like with the hodge-podge storage and organization solution I’ve implemented:

Cat for scale

The box hides the worst of it. I went with envelopes to store monster tokens and action decks, and they just don’t fit together nicely. There was a plastic insert in the box, but it didn’t fit sleeved cards so out it went. There’s a third-party organizer, but it costs nearly as much as the game itself, and that’s before shipping to Australia.

Organizing board games can be tricky. I’ve engaged in occasional foamcore construction. I have a bagful of sealable plastic bags, a plastic organizer or two lying around, a business card holder. I’ve used all these and more, and it’s not enough. Gloomhaven is the first game I’ve had that’s all but impossible to organize on my own. And that’s not acceptable. It’s not enough for publishers to throw all the components in a box and call it a day, and they finally start to recognize it. Plastic bags are commonly included nowadays. Fancy plastic inserts are a popular stretch goal in recent kickstarters.

Board games are physical objects. They can leverage this fact to invoke a sense of magic, but there’s a flipside, to this, too. No matter how brilliantly the game is designed, it still has to be set up and put away every time it’s played. Neglect the physical aspect, and instead of a sense of magic it will invoke a sense of gloom.

Should you get it?

With a third pritning of Gloomhaven planned for July 2018, this question is likely the reason you’re reading this review. Desplite the hype, Gloomhaven is not a perfect game, and there’s plenty it could have done better. If you’re after a tactical combat game with solid character advancement, it’s the best there is and you won’t be disappointed. If, like me, you’re after a “D&D in a box”, temper your expectations a bit.

Alternatively, as a friend of mine put it after one game that didn’t sell him on Gloomhaven, “With how much time it would take to play through this, you might as well play an actual RPG.” Which is an interesting point, and if you’re after a similar heavily tactical combat experience, you may wish to consider D&D 4e. You’d probably get it at a discount in your friendly local gaming store, now that 5e is out.

Gloomhaven is a lot. I wish it was more.

Progression Done Right – Gumballs & Dungeons

Having spent the better part of the last month railing against exploitative progression systems in games, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a game that does progression well. A mobile collectathon. Please don’t run. A mobile collectathon with energy, timers, and premium currency. No, seriously, hear me out.

Gumballs & Dungeons kept being recommmended in my Play Store, and the cutesy name and graphic style kept scaring me off. Too Candy Crush. Having finally tried it a few months ago, I’m glad I did, as I still play it daily. First and foremost, G&D is a competent roguelite dungeoncrawler. Each maze (as the game calls them) level is a 6×5 grid hiding monsters, loot, and the way down. As you progress further, monsters get tougher and bosses appear. There’s equipment, spell scrolls, and xp, which is spent on a branching skill tree. It’s all comfortably familiar.

For each run, you pick a character, one of the titular gumballs. Each gumball has a unique talent, and belongs to one of three types which determine its starting stats and the skill tree it uses: melee, magic, or venture. As you progress through the, essentially, extended tutorial stages of the game, you unlock the ability to “soul-link” a second and then a third gumball, letting you use their talents and skill trees. Except you can only soul-link with gumballs of the same faction, of which there are four. With almost 200 gumballs to choose from, and new ones added frequently, there’s plenty of combinations to try.

Mazes have not just their own monsters and bosses, but sets of achievements and unique mechanics as well. There’s a gumball associated with each maze that you get for beating its “story mode” – several short runs you do at the start; and a second hidden gumball you have to somehow earn inside the maze.

That’s the basics. G&D passes the first test that so many mobile games fail – it is actually a game. Picking a combination of gumballs you haven’t tried yet and seeing how far you can go or what achivements you can get is fun. What about the second test, how exploitative is its progression system?

It’ll take years to Get All The Things – and that’s the one and only objective in this game. And yes, it’s possible to instead pay a silly amount of money to, essentially, avoid playing the game, the paradox of microtransactions is fully applicable. The game, however, claims you don’t have to spend money to enjoy it, and it’s mostly true. The “buy-in”, which unocks what I’d consider the intended experience, is 10 USD. That’s the somewhat standardised value of a package awarding premium currency (gems) every day for a month. Even here, G&D has a twist. You can save up and pay gems to upgrade the item producing gems twice, slightly increasing the gems it gives, and prolonging its lifespan for up to a year. Quirky? That’s G&D in a nutshell. And $10 for a year of gaming is not too bad. This “buy-in” approximately doubles the amount of gems you get daily, and there’s plenty of things to spend gems on.

 

Another very important factor: whatever you pay for, you won’t have wasted your precious gems. All upgrades are permanent. Even the random gumball fragments you get from pots are not worthless. Unlike in many similar games, upgrading gumballs is not destructive – you don’t have to sacrifice a bunch of lower-tier gumballs to advance the chosen gumball to a higher tier, or any such nonsense. Neither are your rewards ever held hostage by limited inventory space or some other threat of missing out if you don’t pay up. Everything you get is yours to keep, and there’s a finite, quite reachable point where a given gumball is maxed out. And once it’s maxed out, there’s a way to prevent its fragments from appearing in pots again.

The game provides an actual reason to want to collect and max out every gumball that goes beyond the exploitative Gotta Catch Them All. It’s an approach I haven’t seen before: each gumball has not just a unique combat talent, but a passive buff as well. These differ significantly: some increase the stats of some or all other gumballs, others buff spells and items, or improve the functionality of the game itself.

Take alliance missions, for instance (of course there are alliances). They refresh every 12 hours, with each mission taking 5 minutes to complete – a simple timer. These grant varying amounts of alliance coins (of course there’s a separate currency), from 120 to 30. Meaning it’s good to do the few best-paying missions, and the rest are a less significant bonus. Still, sounds a bit tedious, doesn’t it? However! One of the first things you should spend these alliance coins on are fragments for the Nelson gumball, whose passive decreases the mission timer. When fully maxed out, and that does take a while, missions are completed instantaneously with a press of a button. Yes, the game created an obstacle and then made me work to gradually remove it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to press that button. That’s progression systems for you.

Sky combat, yet another subsystem (are you noticing a pattern yet?), provides another reason to collect the gumballs: you put a bunch of them on an airship, which gains stats depending on their star level, and bonuses for combinations of different gumballs present. There’re, naturally, a bunch of different airships you can gather fragments for, which improve their passive bonuses and guns that can be mounted on any airship. Sky exploration is its own minigame, with elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, that mostly grants its own set of resources which are used to progress further in it. Which isn’t that different from the core game, really. Unfortunately, sky exploration is the weakest part of the game, with very little interesting decisions you get to make, and I would love to see an overhaul. Still, you do get severall gumballs from it, and in a few mazes you can even call your airship to assist you.

As a result, you always feel like you’re progressing, even if it slows down to a crawl after a while. You’re never waiting for a lucky drop that may come tomorrow or next year – slow and steady accumulation of gumball fragments and other resources is inevitable. You will get every thing, if you’re patient enough. And meanwhile, with each gumball you acquire the rest grow a bit stronger. Next time you’ll get further in sky exploration, delve deeper in a maze.

Gradually, the game becomes more of a management sim than a dungeoncrawler. You “raid” mazes to spend the energy, and even automatically complete the daily quests in the maxed out mazes you raid. Check the shops when they refresh, explore the sky when the sky energy is full, do the alliance missions. It’s busywork, but it’s busywork that’s earned its right to exist. The game isn’t a new hotness for me anymore, and I’m glad I have a way to progress in it without engaging with the main, time-consuming component that frequently. And I’m equally glad the game gives me reasons to actually play by having regular mini-maze events and occasionally releasing new mazes.

G&D is full of gradually unveiling subsystems, some seemingly there just so that you’d have more things to master. It is full of not-at-all subtle cultural references – Zerg Queen gumball comes to mind. Its interface is a mess, and the game could use a bunch of quality-of-life polish. It is brimming with charm and easter eggs. Most importantly, Gumballs & Dungeons is an example of a progression system done right: it takes many of the established addictive progression techinques of free-to-play mobile quasi-games, but uses an actual game as a foundation. The progression system is used to enhance and prolong the experience of playing the game, not to hide its absence.

DramaSystem – more drama than system

“Huh? Isn’t this blog dead?” No, merely hibernating. As it turns out, running a weekly game and writing posts inspired by that game occupy the same mindspace, and game preparation trumps blog. But having supported the kickstarter for Robin D. Laws’ Hillfolk/DramaSystem and consumed the preview rules in a day, I wanted to excise my impressions from my head and onto the (web)page. What did I think? Great theory, unconvincing practical application.

Update: oops, I’ve forgotten to actually say what Hillfolk is. It is an indie roleplaying game about Iron Age tribes in fictional 10th century BCE.  Its main focus is not heroic adventures, but rather dramatic interactions between characters. Hence, DramaSystem.

First things first. I haven’t yet played the game, merely read the preview rules. From my understanding, they’re unlikely to significantly change. I’ve also been left disappointed by almost all “narrative” roleplaying games I’ve tried, though I maintain it’s their fault. But I liked Robin’s Gumshoe, and so decided to give Hillfolk a try.

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