Spire Review, Part 2

So, like I said last timeSpire is a great RPG that’s been out for a while (since the beginning of this year) but it’s new to me and I’ve fallen pretty quickly. I went over the awesome character options in my previous post but that’s only half the awesomeness awaiting you in Spire.

The World

The world of Spire has some fairly rich lore, but it’s also open enough to make your own. I’ll go over the broad strokes of the space beyond the city here but will also say that I’m not cutting out too much.

The city of Spire is located in the lands of Destera which is a kingdom named for the ancient drow house of Destera. It’s got rolling hills and farmland, but the drow that inhabited it had massive underground cities just like the classic cities in Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. Most of the drow race, though, lives to the west in the so-called “Home Nations” which are currently wracked by civil war. There’s also the Eastern Domain which is home to humans and their Wanderer-Kings while to the south is a desert realm full of gnolls. North is the kingdoms of the high elves (the “aelfir”) which I’ll talk about more in the next section, and… that’s all the directions!

Spire - Sky Docks
Image © Rowan, Rook, and Decard

The origins of Spire itself are nebulous but there’s a sidebar with a dozen really cool options. There’s no absolute answer, though, and there also isn’t an answer to why the high elves are here in the first place. It’s established that the drow didn’t build Spire and that the aelfir are interlopers here so it can be safely said that the House of Destera fell for some reason and the aelfir took control of the tower and the surrounding lands as their own. The wars in the Home Nations created drow refugee who fled this direction, arriving with nothing and carrying some unknown (and possibly propagandistic) curse that makes them inferior to the aelfir.

There’s also arcologies, firearms, and other technological items that mostly come from the east. How steampunk (or, more likely, dungeon punk) this setting gets is up to you like everything else in Spire. Likewise, how conspiratorial the drow get, how visceral the poverty is, and how bloody the rebellion gets is something that can be adjusted for each gaming group.

The Aelfir and the Drow

The aelfir are from the mountains to the north of Destera, in “great fortresses of ice and thorn, defended by legions of devoted warriors.” Pretty epic but it’s clear from the outset that the aelfir are the enemy for good reason. They are powerful and beautiful and all but they aren’t particularly empathetic and they live at the top of the city, throwing lavish parties and getting stoned out of their minds while thousands live below them in pain and squalor. A lot of what they use to really glitz it up comes from the magitek of the eastern human realms and those are the only non-elves that are in the setting as written. Most of the focus, though, is on the protagonists of the story: the drow.

I specifically didn’t say “heroes” because there is no nerfing of the drow character in this game. Drow raise zombies, eat other people, poison, lie, and practice blood magic. A list of “Things to Know” provides some chilling reminders such as This Is Not a Kind World and You Are Going to Hurt People. My favorite couple, though, are This Is Going to Kill You and There’s Always Another Level. A campaign of Spire isn’t about beating the aelfir, liberating Spire, or achieving a drow victory. It’s about attempting all of those things but knowing that you’re just a portion of a battle that will take generations to achieve if it will ever really end.

Spire - Arcology
Image © Rowan, Rook, and Decard

The Ministry

At the heart of the drow rebellion is the illegal conspiracy known as the Mininstry. They are devoted to the dark side of the moon (a goddess known as “Our Hidden Mistress”) which is the aspect of moon-worship that the aelfir have explicitly forbidden. Operatives are known as ministers and are organized into cells but it’s not some freedom-fighting group that wants a world of liberty and equality. Those things to remember include one last one which says The Ministry Will Sell You Out. In true drow fashion the purpose of the Ministry is to hurt the aelfir as much as possible and if the wider rebellion can achieve that by sacrificing a few drow along the way, well that’s just how it goes.

The Districts of Spire

The actual description of the city breaks things down according to plot point. There is a map of this vertical city with various layers and what you might find there, but the names and NPCs are set up with how PCs might interact with them.

To start with are the “Districts and Factions of Academia,” which basically matches up with “folks who do magic, good and evil.” The Brotherhood of the Unlidded Eye, for example, are the secret demonologists who are hated and banned by the aelfir. The Sisterhood of Illumination are moon-priestesses who follow any kind of magic that will help drow-kind (including trafficking with demons) while the College of the Undying Light are sell-outs who follow a solar religion funded in part by the sun-worshiping aelfir… and also secretly demonlogists. There are lots of folks dealing with demons is what I’m saying. There’s also the magic-engineers of the Brazacott Technical Institute and the magical scholars of the aelfirs’ University of Divine Magic and the humans’ Academy of Gwynn-Enforr. They may or may not have been written with this in mind, but I see the first three as potential rivals and the last three as potential marks. All of them, of course, with far more resources than the Ministry.

Next up are the “Districts and Factions of Commerce.” The North Docks are run by the knights, the gangsters who run protection rackets with the silent approval of the city watch who would rather not patrol this part of the city anyways. On the flip side, the Sky Docks are near the top of the city and are much more formal, both in their business and in the graft and corruption that grips them. They aren’t pristine and mystical (despite the enigmatic “skywhales” that tie up there) but rather cramped and dangerous with dark temples to foreign gods, giant crows, and a cult trying to make Spire into a singing instrument. Lastly comes the Blue Port, a marketplace hosting caravans from all over and where customs agents try to control the blackmarket trade into Spire while the Azurites try to get filthy rich (remember that class from last time? the name makes sense now).

Spire - The Docks
Image © Rowan, Rook, and Decard

Drow might feel more at home in the “Districts and Factions of Crime” which really means Red Row. This is the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where pit fighting, multi-level bordellos, gun-cultists, and the servile creatures called “gutterkin” can all be found. There’s so much sin and danger in this district that it is the lone entry in this section. Opposite it are the “Districts and Factions of High Society” at the top of Spire. Amaranth is the heart of aelfir living in the city, with their frozen palaces and Black Guard patrols to keep non-aelfir from feeling too comfortable. The rich streets and canals of the Silver Quarter arguably has as many drugs flowing through it as Red Row though they include fewer impurities and more magical effects.

The many “Districts and Factions of Low Society” lie in the bottom rungs of Spire and the undercity. Derelictus is the slum area “covered in shadows and dirty magic” with such attractions as the Hemlock Fruit Market (best place for corpsefruit) and the cannibals of Grist (warped into ghouls by eating “thinking-flesh”). Perch at least has a view, but that’s because it is literally bolted to the side of Spire and waiting to fall crashing to the ground below when the shoddy craftsmanship finally gives way. The Garden District really does grow things but given the limitations of the drow that’s mostly lightless things like algae, mushrooms, and insects. What little actual fruits or vegetables are grown in patches of sunlight are invariably sold up Spire to the aelfir. Lastly is the industrial section known as the Works, where factories, printing presses, and machine-gods can all be found. You know the type of place.

The “Districts and Factions of the Occult” include the Vermissian (the failed experiment to make an extradimensional transit network now turned nightmare-fuel) and the Guild of Morticians a union/cult that “is legally responsible for all dead things in the city.” If you want to get really dark, though, look no farther than the Midwives who stand in for priestesses of Lolth and who have a backstory that includes a curse of stillborns, transformation into spider-people, and wines made of their own blood. This is getting back to all that described-but-never-nailed-down stuff in the origins of the setting, and this is seen most strikingly in The Heart which is a twisted source of madness in the center of Spire itself. One would guess that this would play a central role in the history of Spire and it most likely does… we just don’t know what that is until your group makes it up.

Spire - Derelictus
Image © Rowan, Rook, and Decard

The “Districts and Factions of Order’ include the City Guard, the Allied Defense HQ (apparently the aelfir are at war with the southern gnolls), and the ruling Council of Spire. This are all fairly self-explanatory so it’s the “Districts and Factions of Religion” that are more interesting to me. As I mentioned before there are different aspects to the moon in drow religion: some illegal and some encouraged. These three aspects (called Damnou) are the lit Our Glorious Lady, the darkened Our Hidden Mistress who serves as the patron goddess of the Ministry, and Our Lady of Vengeance who is the blood moon aspect and that sums her up pretty nicely. These are the structured examples of religion: there’s also the cheapened market of “holiness” called Pilgrim’s Walk where every two-bit god can find a home. The Solar Basilica at the top of Spire is mostly an aelfir thing but there are some drow who are willing to risk worshiping the sun, to turn it back against the high elves.

Conclusion

The biggest thing to strike me as I read through this book is the areas it skipped over. What the elves are doing in Spire, what drow society was like before they came, and even why Spire is here are left vague. I know there’s an effort made to hint and wink at stuff to let homebrew take its course, but when it happens again and again it seems like laziness.

But as I read I realized something: I was still reading. I mean, I’d committed to write a review but I also genuinely wanted to find out the answers to all the questions that were left blank. Who are the three Damnou worshiped by the drow? What sorts of drugs are given for Spire? What clues are there about what humans are like in this setting? These blank spaces draw you in like a page with indents from something written on top of it. You keep exploring and finding the edges of things and then push just past the edges to figure out this world.

Spire - Chess Game
Image © Rowan, Rook, and Decard

That’s what this story is about. You learn about Spire at the same time your drow PCs figure out what’s happening and how they can exploit it. I felt in the beginning that not knowing why the aelfir were in Spire made the whole rebellion seem empty but the truth is that it’s not that kind of revolution. Revolutions in real life, whether in Ireland or Kenya, have happened after an occupying force was in place for generations. The revolutionaries haven’t known anything different and they are told by older relatives that this fight was going on for years. The original reasons don’t matter so much for the current fight and it didn’t work then. So what’s special about now? Nothing. You’ll probably die… but you’ll make a hell of an impact when you do.

 

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