I’m behind the times here but after hearing about Spire on Character Creation Cast and checking it out, I fell in love enough to get behind the recent Kickstarter. More and more I can’t believe how long this amazing game flew under my radar and so I thought I’d write a belated review in case anyone else out there missed it!
I was trying to explain this game to my brother and what I came up with was “It’s like someone had to pitch a movie after binge-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy while playing Bioshock Infinite and then that movie was directed by David Fincher.” It’s one of those games that’s difficult to pin down but my one-sentence summary would go something like this: player characters are drow elves in the city of Spire, a city built to serve the high elves (aelfir) by oppressing a starving drow underclass who is itching to tear down the gilded world of their pale-skinned cousins.
That skips a lot of the detail, as you’ll see while we make our way through this game, but there’s also a lot of the game that’s left up to your gaming group to customize. It’s really amazing how the authors have detailed so much (the lands of the drow, the history of the aelfir, the levels of Spire) but like an impressionist painting the setting is beautiful and full from a distance but upon zooming in you find space to fill and mix yourself.
It’s evocative and fun with excellent deviations from standard fantasy, as detailed in the beginning of the book. Authors Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor outline their worldbuilding philosophy with a few great concepts such as “Magic is Hard,” “There’s No Morality System,” and “There Aren’t Any Monsters.” This is a game of struggle and grim choices where the enemies you kill are not barbaric orcs but people who live with you in this city and have families, lives, and motivations of their own. The last point they press is that “We’re Not Off to the Wilderness,” which is not to say there are no dungeon crawls or long journeys. Spire is a massive city full of strange, magical areas and dark, dangerous blackness. You tend to stay in this city but that doesn’t mean you won’t be heading all over the place.
The mechanics of the game are fairly simple but hide incredible depths (that shouldn’t be surprising at all to those who know about Grant Howitt’s other work). Basically you roll a d10 and consult the table to the right. If the task involves something you have a skill in then you can roll another d10 and if you have a domain (see below) then you add another d10. There’s also a mastery level which adds a fourth d10 if it’s really in your wheelhouse. Once you roll all your dice you take the highest result as your final result. In cases where the task is especially difficult (or your GM’s a jerk) you might lose some dice out of your pool.
In some games (like Powered by the Apocalypse) everything works like a skill check even when it’s combat. Spire is sort of the opposite: everything sort of works like combat even when it’s a skill check. Failing a check (as seen on the chart above) chips away at your resistances in amounts of d3, d6, or d8 depending on the stakes. The five resistances cover everything you might imagine in the game: Blood (physical strength), Mind (mental strength), Silver (money and resources), Shadow (secrecy and anonymity), and Reputation (social standing). Failing at climbing a wall means you fall and take Blood stress. Failing to bully your way onto the docks means you have to pay protection money to the gangs which is Silver stress. Failing to properly channel the energies for magic means Mind stress.
When you take stress, the GM rolls a d10 against the amount of stress you’ve taken against that resistance. If the d10 result rolls under then there’s fallout where something really bad happens (see why they’re “resistances” now?) depending on the resistance type and how much stress you have. In the examples above fallout might mean you break something falling from the wall, owe money to bad folks to get enough to pay off the gang members, or develop some unsettling behavior for failing to hold the spell right.
Skills and Domains
There are nine skills in Spire: Compel, Deceive, Fight, Fix, Investigate, Pursue (which is following someone and also losing them), Resist (endurance stuff), Sneak, and Steal. There are also nine domains, which are aspects of society in Spire: Academia, Crime, Commerce, High Society, Low Society, Occult, Order (the police and hired muscle), Religion, and Technology.
The idea with these two things together is that one of them covers how to do something and the other covers who to do it with. You might have a character who can Investigate and so rolls an extra die when doing that, and who also knows the Occult side of Spire pretty well so gets a bonus die then too. When he’s Investigating the Occult he really excels.
Lastly, there are knacks which are focused abilities on specific parts of a skill: you might be good at Deceive but your knack gives you a whole other bonus die when forging documents, for example. Grant Howitt has said that these are basically Specialties from World of Darkness but they didn’t want to call them Specialties. There are example knacks in the book but you can also just make up what you like!
The last thing before we get into character classes is bonds, your character’s contacts and group connections that they can call on. In the same vein of “everything works like combat” you ask favors from your bonds and that deals stress to the relationship. There can be fallout from the stress just like normal (although it happens at the end of the session so you aren’t usually dropped in the middle of a session) and you can help out your bonds to heal the stress. Simple and elegant.
Durance and Character Classes
Right, so at this point Spire seems like a combination of Night’s Black Agents and Fate with spy skills leading to damage on various tracks. You’d be forgiven for suspecting that this is just a spy game wearing the clothes of a fantasy game. I mean, you’d be dead wrong but you’d be forgiven.
The high fantasy aspect of Spire enters with the character classes and it enters with a vengeance. Firstly you pick a Durance which is your drow character’s indentured servitude to the aelfir and it gives you a few bonuses like a background in D&D. Then you pick a character class and all ten of them are amazing.
- An Azurite is a black marketeer or criminal lord, someone with a lot of money and a lot of connections. On top of all that, you have the option of having your starting “weapon” be a bodyguard. Fantastic.
- The Bound are magical vigilantes who leap around like drow Batment. They do so, though, by finding forgotten gods and binding them into weapons so damn!
- The Carrion-Priest is a follower of a death-god named Charnel who is every bit as nice as he sounds. His chosen animal is a hyena so you get a freakin’ pet hyena which is amazing.
- The Firebrand is a rabble-rouser and popular leader. This isn’t as outlandish as a hyena but that’s some people’s style and you quickly get access to honest-to-Charnel armies of drow so that’s nothing to sneeze at.
- The Idol is a catch-all for artists and inspirational beings who influence people through their art. Again, not one I’d necessarily pick but one of their core abilities involves “semi-legal black magic” to create a glamor and become someone’s ideal partner… and you don’t know what that is until you’ve picked a target and transformed.
- The Knight is probably not what you’re picturing: they used to be sworn protectors but they’ve become corrupt gangsters over time and their abilities create drunken soccer hooligans with greatswords.
- Lajhans do fulfill their image, though: priests of the moon goddess out to save the drow people. I think the thrill of this is in playing an emblem of drow power surrounded by so many disappointing corruptions of the drow. Plus high-level lajhans can turn into moonlight or bring people back to life for a lunar month so… there’s that.
- The aelfir often where masks for socializing and ceremony and the Masked are those drow whose Durance brought them into this world. Now they wear their masks to adopt identities and move through the echelons of the high elves.
- The unassumingly-named Midwife is a Priestess of Lolth with the numbers filed off. They are all about binding people together literally and figuratively… And also growing venomous mandibles when the mood strikes.
- Explaining the Vermissian Sage is a difficult task. Basically, the aelfir tried to build a magical mass-transit system in Spire called the Vermissian which brought people through a pocket-dimension. It failed and became a Lovecraftian nightmare and some drow are just stupid enough to try and use it and just genius enough to succeed.
I mean, all those classes are amazing, right? There isn’t a one I wouldn’t want to play eventually, but they are just the beginning of the process. There are also Extra Advances which are sort of like prestige classes for Spire. I say that because they are an extra flavor with additional abilities to pick from, but they aren’t really things you work towards. Sure, the extra advances have requirements but they are things like “Lose someone or something genuinely irreplacable” or “Attend a few sermons at Brother Hellion’s Church of the Gun on Kiln Street in Red Row.”
The breadth of these extras is impressive, even before you start to include the short supplements already put out for Spire. You could be a veteran of the city guard, a vessel for the chittering demons in the city’s depths, or a devotee of the Sun (strange for a drow but with some great abilities). These extras could add some spice to a class (especially if someone has the same class as you) or they could be the central part of your