Heart Review

A while ago I took a look at the amazing Spire by Rowan, Rook, and Decard. It’s a book about dark elves living under the oppressive rule of high elves in the vertical city of Spire. The follow-up game Heart is about what lies beneath the city. Spoiler alert: it’s nightmares.

While Heart uses the same basic system as Spire but it’s not fully compatible. We’ll get into the mechanical differences below but essentially this is a game set in the world of Spire but with the classic RPG conceit of surface adventurers heading down into a dungeon. In this case, however, the dungeon is a living entity with a powerful but alien intelligence. There’s opportunity, treasure, wonders down there for those foolish enough to try and find them while heading towards the increasingly mind-bending center of the Heart. As the introduction says, “the Heart knows what you want, and by the Goddess, it’ll give it to you or kill you trying.”

Mechanics of the Game

To get a grounding in the basic mechanics,  you should probably start with my Spire review but here are the mechanics in a single sentence: when you do something you roll a d10 and try to get above a five, and having a skill, domain, and mastery all add dice so you can conceivably have up to 4d10 and pick the highest.

Heart follows along these lines although, for instance, the skills and domains are different. Both games have Compel (social stuff) and Sneak (hidey stuff) but Heart also has some classic dungeoneering stuff: Delve (climbing and moving through tunnels), Discern (noticing stuff), Endure (resisting the Heart’s corruption), Evade (getting away), Hunt (tracking and following), Kill (doing a murder), and Mend (fixing things). LIkewise there are Occult, Religion, and Technology domains in both games but Heart also has Cursed (nasty locations), Desolate (abandoned locations), Haven (settled locations), Warren (cramped locations), and Wild (overgrown areas).

Image © Rowan Rook and Decard

Resistances, your tracks for fallout from the stress and damage of just surviving in the world, are mostly the same in Heart. Blood (physical injury), Mind (mental stress), and Supplies (goods, the equivalent of Silver in Spire) are all repeated but also Echo (corruption from the Heart itself) and Fortune (bad luck and overconfidence). The biggest thing is how fallout works. In Spire when you take stress the GM rolls a d10 and compares it to your current stress to see if there’s fallout. If there is, you get fallout depending on the stress you have. This means as you get more beaten up the risk gets greater for serious consequences.

In Heart, you still roll to see if you have fallout but the die is a d12 so its slightly less likely that you take fallout. This is probably because there are fewer opportunities to remove stress in Heart but it’s not as much of a respite because the fallout itself is a lot riskier. If you do take fallout in Heart you consider the die result to see what type of fallout you get. So if you have a few stress points then you’re probably not getting anything severe but once you’re at a moderate level then really anything can happen. It’s risky to push further once you’ve taken a few lumps so the game shifts from careful plotting to reckless adventure.

Character Building

Making characters in Heart involves first picking an ancestry, your folk or species. In Spire this doesn’t come up: everyone is dark elves (although there are some homebrew options out there). In Heart you can be a dark elf, a human, an aelfir (high elf), or a gnoll. These don’t actually give you mechanical changes but instead are character prompts, names, background, and a table of things you might have on you. Drow are no smarter or stronger or frailer on average than any other ancestry, just like in real life. The best part is all of these are easy to lift into Spire as a result if you want some “official-ish” options for non-drow characters.

Image © Rowan Rook and Decard

After that you pick a calling, the counterpart to your durance in Spire. Just as your durance is a roleplaying cue for why you fight the system in the city, your calling is your reasons for why you’re down in this hellhole searching out the Heart. While the benefits you get from your durance are skills, domains, or resistance slots, the callings of Heart have more involved abilities. If you came for adventure then you get bonus refreshes when you advance. If you came for enlightenment you get the Discern skill and the ability to succeed once per session when you shouldn’t. If you came because you were forced then you can hide behind “friends” to avoid stress. If you came because you heard the Heartsong then you are better able to resist its corruptions. Lastly, if you came because you are penitent over some transgression then you can shake off Blood and Mind fallout temporarily.

Callings are also where you get your character advancements: instead of gaining advances when you change the city (which isn’t available) there are story “beats” for each calling that you can check off to get Minor, Major, or Zenith advances. These roughly equate to Low, Medium, and Major advances in Spire but the Major advances also provide access to a subset of Minor advances and the Zenith abilities here are truly disturbing and usually come upon you suddenly in the middle of the action. Generally a Zenith advance means the end of your character in some terrifying way, so there’s some story tension between gaining more power and returning to the city above at some point. There’s also some player agency in picking the story beats you want, telling the GM, and seeing those come out in the game.

Image © Rowan Rook and Decard

There are nine different classes in Heart, a smaller number than you’d get in Spire but it’s also a more focused setting. Each class comes with a skill, a domain, a “resource” that they can use to refresh their resistances at landmark sites, and their choice of equipment, plus a couple core abilities as well as a list of Minor, Major, and Zenith abilities. You start the game with one Major and three Minor abilities from your class, with others coming as you hit the story beats from your calling.

The classes are all very cool and as a bonus are a sort of manic retelling of classic fantasy tropes from games like Dungeons & Dragons. The Cleaver is a class for delvers already being warped by the Heart and leaning into it. They are sort of the rangers of the setting, if the ranger devoured their kills to gain power and skills. Deadwalkers start off the game having already died once and looking to exploit their half-dead status for power like a necromancer but grosser. They can step into the Grey (the world between life and death) and become more and more undead with further advances. The Hound is a straightforward combatant like the classic fighter class, although this one is a lost soldier from a doomed regiment sent into the Heart long ago and forgotten. One of the strangest class options is the Deep Apiarist who “fill their bodies with glyph-marked bees and can manipulate reality.” This is somewhat like a psionic character but also you get a pet hive that lives in your throat so that’s fun too.

For a connection to the City Above seen in Spire, Heretics are those followers of the Moon Beneath which is an unsanctioned cult of the drow lunar religion. This is certainly the cleric of Heart with many restorative abilities but also opportunities to punish transgressors which is always a hoot. As another religious options, Incarnadines are sort of priest-thieves who serve Incarne, the Crimson God of Debt. They have good luck and light fingers, but also magic to do things like creating compulsions in people or stealing luck from others. The Vermissian Knight is a version of the paladin trope twisted almost beyond recognition. Rather than safeguarding a tower or the vulnerable smallfolk, a Vermissian knight lives in this liminal world and tries to keep it from exploding out over everything.

The Junk Mage is a spellcasting class that sort of functions like a D&D warlock if their patron was an elder evil and their magic came from sifting through detritus and wearing away your own grip on reality. There are different elemental entities described in this class too so it’s a great source of setting lore. Lastly, the Witch is another spellcaster but they draw their magic from inside like a sorcerer. Specifically, they draw their magic from the horrific blood disease that they carry which is slowly warping them even as it gives them power. This allows them to live alongside the Heart and keep their own minds even as they are further corrupted.

Image © Rowan Rook and Decard

Delving in the Heart

There’s a lot of truly jaw-dropping setting material in this book and I won’t go into most of it to avoid spoilers. There are tons of locations, though, some strange and nightmarish denizens of the underrealm and a freeform system for mapping that turns the hexcrawl into a construction of reality.

The act of moving through the Heart is captured by delves, pathways that you have to follow to move further and further towards the center of this place. In Heart the narrative takes the fore and you describe how the story unfolds as you move through a delve, and the delve itself is an opponent to be overcome with rolls. Every delve has notes on where the route lies (“between X and Y” usually), a tier (how deep it is towards the Heart’s center), two domains that are relevant to the delve, the die size of stress for a failed roll, and a Resistance score that must be “damaged” to overcome. After this is a description, events that might happen there, and connections as side-plots that can give you an advantage the next time you come this way.

Let’s take, for example, the example delve of Crowsfoot Pass. This has domains of Desolate and Wild so a character having those domains will fare better, and it’s a Tier 1-2 delve meaning it will be fairly close to the surface. If you want to make it past this shear cliff face with unstable switchbacks you would roll a d10 as normal, add a second if you have the Delve skill, and add a third if you have the Desolate or Wild domains (with a fourth if you have mastery in either skill or domain). If you get a success (above a 5) then you can deal stress to Crowfoot Pass as an abstract way to show your progress. The GM can describe things from the Events list like a harpy attack or a perilous climb or some cultists, which might be separate encounters depending on the story pacing. Once you’ve dealt 10 stress to Crowsfoot Pass the delve is over and you’re on the other side. On your way you might also deal with a jerk called the Butcher which will lower the delve’s resistance for next time since the paths are slightly safer now.

In between delves are landmarks, relatively stable places like holy sites, towns, lairs, etc. These aren’t any less dangerous, mind you, but they at least have services and goods (places called “haunts”) that you can pay to use. This might be a selfish but skilled alchemist, some beautiful caves with razor-sharp crystals, or a trading post with the surface. Stuff that you can refuel with before you tackle the next delve. By stringing delves to landmarks to delves and so on your group can build out the map of the Heart as you journey. Because reality is so soft here, this map could also shift just as easily so the next time you go to Crowsfoot Pass it might lead someplace new instead!

Image © Rowan Rook and Decard

Conclusion

This game is so good. Its theme of delving underground with a band of adventurers is familiar to many roleplayers but once you slip into that familiar space you suddenly find it filled with strange objects and crawling things and witches with magically-diseased blood. If you’re looking for a way to get your D&D friends into a different (I’ll even say better) game, then this has more than enough handholds to get them invested in the mechanics, followed by the sort of crazy storytelling that will make you forget all about the Forgotten Realms.

A natural question for those already familiar with this world is how compatible Heart is with Spire. As I described above the mechanics are more or less the same but with a few adjustments. If you wanted to bring Spire characters down to the Heart, I think you can use their skills and domains but add in the skills and domains of Heart and just play things by ear (completely sub in the stress and fallout resolution system from Heart, though).

For some more official options, the Burned and Broken supplement offers a chance to bridge between games, with Spire classes serving as the starting seed of Heart characters after they are sent below. Landmarks and delves for Derelictus, the lowermost part of the city, are provided to literally make that bridge. You can use your Spire class as an “origin” as a set of abilities that you can then add to with multiclassing and instead of a Heart calling you have The Fall which has three story beats (leave, acclimatize, and become) which follow your journey into becoming a Heart character. There’s also Vermissian Black Ops is a chance to bridge both cities with the strange, otherworldly transportation network that is in both the underground realm and the spires above. The Vermissian is used in both Spire and Heart and Vermissian Black Ops is a way to tell spy and crime stories in Spire using Heart characters with rules tweaks.

Whether you are playing in Spire and want a new location, you love the tone of Heart and want to try it out, or you just want to try something that’s similar in broad strokes to more familiar RPG settings, I recommend Heart to all of you. Happy delving!

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