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Spire: The City Must Fall

So after a year and a half of only playing online, my group and I just started a face to face campaign of Spire: The City Must Fall (by Grant Howitt & Christopher Taylor of Rowan, Rook, & Decard) so I figured I'd start a thread on it. I'll post some thoughts on setting and on the system, and maybe some examples of play, but anyone else who has anything at all to share about the game should please post.

A quick TLDR for anyone who doesn't want to read through the below: Spire and the follow up game they made called Heart are both excellent, and deserve a lot more attention than they seem to get. Let's hope that Heart's recent win of seven Ennies puts more eyes on these games.

Setting
The game takes place in the mile-high city called Spire, which had belonged to the drow for centuries, but about 200 years ago, was conquered by the aelfir, or high elves, who now rule there. The drow are allowed to remain in the city so long as they perform a durance, or a period of indentured servitude, for the aelfir. The PCs are all drow and are all members of a secret order, the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, that seeks to restore rule of Spire back to the drow. The problem is that the odds are stacked against them, and even their own families and friends might turn them in should they find out what they're up to. So the themes of inequality and revolution and struggle are very much baked into the game.

The city is a quasi- steampunk, early industrial era setting. Humans are present in Spire, and they tend to specialize in engineering and unearthing technology from early ur-societies and then retro-engineering that technology. So there are factories and printing presses, and most notably, guns. This kind of modern take is combined with a very haunted vibe as beneath the city is the Heart, a tear in reality that allows chaotic energies to warp and twist things in the city, especially the closer you get to it. So things are more strange and unsettling the lower in Spire you go, especially when you start to move into the subterranean levels of the undercity.

Spire has some very surreal elements that remind me of Planescape or of China Mieville's novels. For example, there was an attempt to create a mass transit system throughout the city, but they accidentally tapped into the Heart, allowing its energies to flow throughout the city. So now there's a series of haunted train tunnels that exist slightly out of sync with reality, which can be used to get around by those who know the secret. Spire is a strange place and there are dozens and dozens of religions and cults and forms of belief. There are many factions within the city, all with interesting ideas and relationships to help propel play. The writing is actually quite evocative and there are just tons of ideas on every page. The details are very loose; the intention is for each group to take the concepts in Spire and make them their own. The basic mode of play would be a very sandbox style approach; let the PCs loose in the city with a very basic agenda, see what they get up to, and then have the world react.

System
A key idea there is that PC progression is based on change. PCs get Advances when they make a change in the city, for good or for ill. There are three tiers of abilities that you can choose from, based on the scope of the change; Minor Advances for small changes, Medium Advances for significant changes, and Major Advances for massive changes. So there's no XP system, but instead the GM and players decide if a change to the city was made, and what scope.

The classes are all very setting specific. There are 10 in the core book, but a few more have been published in supplements. They tend not to be of the generic "fighter" or "wizard" variety, although there are a couple that are closer to that than the others. So instead of a wizard, you'll find the Vermissian Sage, an occultist who uses a failed mass-transit train system that's out of sync with reality to move about Spire (as I said....the setting is bizarre). Instead of a cleric, you'll find an Azurite, a merchant priest devoted to the god of money, who can trade coin for magic. Each class comes with a couple of core abilities they begin with, and then they can pick two more from the class list of Minor Advances.

For most classes, at least one core ability and usually some of the Advances allow the player to declare facts about the setting or the NPCs, usually a number of times per Session or per Situation (scene/encounter). For example, once per session, the Vermissian Sage can declare that two NPCs are connected somehow, and the GM determines how. This means that the GM has to hold on loosely to things, and be ready to come up with information in response to what the players do. It gives the players new avenues that they can use for their characters to pursue goals. A lot of the focus of the game is the idea of leveraging advantages you have, including social connections. Each PC will also have Bonds, which are NPC contacts/friends/family that they can call upon for help. However, the more they do so, the greater the risk that Bond will take Fallout (see below).

The core mechanic when an action is declared is to roll a pool of d10s. You get one for trying, you get one more if you have a relevant skill, you get another if you have a relevant domain, and then a fourth if you have mastery on the roll (this is situational based on abilities and equipment). The PCs don't have attributes as many other games have; instead they have a list of Skills and a list of Domains; there are 9 of each. A Skill is a practiced or natural talent of some kind (Fight, Deceive, Sneak, etc.), and a Domain is a sphere or area of knowledge and familiarity (Academia, Crime, High Society, etc.). What Skills and Domains you have is based on a combination of your Class, the Durance you served, and any that are gained from abilities you select. Most starting PCs will have 2 or 3 of each, but may pick up more with Advances. So when you roll, you'll be rolling between 1d10 and 4d10. You keep the highest roll, with tiers of success based on the result (10 is a critical success, 8-9 is a full success, 6-7 is success with stress, 2-5 is a failure, and 1 is a critical failure).

Stress is the equivalent of Hit Points, although it is explicitly not "meat". You have 5 Resistance Tracks and when you take Stress, it gets applied to the relevant track. They are: Blood (physical harm), Mind (mental harm), Silver (financial harm), Shadow (harm to anonymity/secrecy), and Reputation (social harm). As you accumulate Stress, the GM will roll 1d10 and if the roll is under your current total Stress, then some of your Stress turns into Fallout. This is when the narrative Stress becomes a specific drawback. The severity is based on the total Stress you have, the higher the more severe. When you take Fallout, you reduce a corresponding amount of Stress. So if you have 6 Stress in Blood, and the GM rolls a 5 on the Fallout roll, some of that Stress converts to Fallout: Broken Leg and you have the appropriate penalties going forward until you can somehow remove the Fallout.

Your relationships with your Bonds can also take Stress and face Fallout. This Stress is tracked separate from that of the PC. When a Bond helps you out, they usually will make a roll of some kind, and they'll take Stress accordingly. In any session where a Bond takes Stress, the GM will roll at the end, and see if they get Fallout. If they do, they're going to be at risk in some way for helping the PCs. They may put unwanted attention on you, or they may be arrested or forced to betray you, or worst of all, they may be taken from their home and shot in the street. This element of the game is one I haven't yet seen in play after only one session, but it seems an interesting point of tension. You can use your Bonds as a resource to further your goals, but at what risk? It really seems to play with the themes of the setting quite well.

I really like this system, and the five different Resistances and Bonds give the GM a lot of different ways to complicate things for the PCs beyond just physical harm. It's also a very dangerous system for the characters as they can easily find themselves with a good amount of Stress quickly if things don't go their way. Luckily, there are ways to reduce Stress, either class abilities that are similar to like Cure spells in D&D, or through a Refresh action. Each class has a specific trigger that allows the character to Refresh, and clear some Stress. They're all keyed to class specific themes or ideas. For example, the Bound class (a kind of masked vigilante type) has the Refresh: Bring a criminal to justice.

The game takes a lot of burden off the GM as far as tracking status and the like. By default RAW, the game suggests that the GM track each PCs total Stress, but I opted not to do that. When there's something measurable like a tally or a track, I prefer players know where things are at so they're making informed decisions. I try not to just let things boil down to being only numbers, though, which seems to be the concern expressed in the book, so I wasn't too worried about my decision. NPC stats are simple and boil down to a few bits, mostly how much Stress they can take before they're out, and how much they deal to a PC. That's it...it's light in the best way.

Overall
Having only played one session, I have to say so far I like the game quite a bit. The rules are easy once you grasp the basics, and the characters are simple and take only a few minutes to make. If you're the kind of person who needs to read every possible PC ability before making a character, then you'll want to maybe read a bit of it ahead of starting play, but you should hold off on making a character as that's meant to be a group activity. One criticism I can think of is that the classes are so tied to the lore that it can be a bit tricky to know enough to make a character. This can be mitigated by doing character generation as a group, and going over some of the basics. By the time my group and I had discussed the classes, they had a pretty good sense of the setting, actually.

The other criticism is a minor one, and that's how details are organized in the book when it comes to referring in play. The rules are all easily accessible (they actually fit on a few pages entirely), but the setting info is less easy to find. But really, not challenging in the grand scheme of things.

All in all, the setting is evocative and detailed, but also loose enough for every group to make it their own. The mechanics are interesting and the classes and abilities are dynamic. Play is very player focused, though the GM still has a good deal of input. We had a really good first session with only a couple of minor kinks that I think were easily addressed. If you've been thinking about giving the game a try, or if you want something that takes some familiar concepts and twists them in new ways, then I'd strongly recommend it.
 

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So we did character generation and our first bit of play all in our first game night, but I’m gonna break them up here into Session 0 and Session 1.

Session 0
The PCs form a cell in the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, a sect devoted to a drow goddess whose worship is outlawed by the aelfir. As members of the Ministry, they're devoted to the drow people, and to taking back the city by subverting control where they can. This is a clandestine revolution at this point. Things have been this way for so long and many are content with how things are. The drow nobility accepts aelfir rule to one degree or another, and they plot and scheme for favor and standing among the upper districts, while down-Spire the common drow live in squalor.

There are three players, and the PCs we wound up with are:


  • Myridian, a Knight of the Wolf and Hound Pub in the North Docks, a thug who served his durance as a killer for an (as yet unnamed) aelfir lord; he has an NPC squire named Nathan as a Bond who is overly optimistic and hopeful; he's a gifted combatant
  • Caspune, an Idol; an artist with supernatural skill who can influence others through his craft; the player modeled him after David Bowie with a Ziggy Stardust type persona; he spent his Durance as a “pet” of an aelfir noble; he has a Bond with three devoted fans that he can rely upon for help; he's a charmer and enchanter
  • Chthon, a Vermissian Sage; a hermit who lives in the corrupted train tunnels of the failed Vermissian mass transit system that runs throughout Spire; he spent his Durance working in one of the universities in the richer districts of Spire; he has access to the Vermissian Vault, which holds books from other worlds and alternate histories, giving him knowledge of things that never were or only may have been
Creating the characters is a group effort. Each PC has a Bond with another PC, where that player can determine facts about the other players’ characters. This is a minor but very interesting process, and really works well to establish the group dynamic and set up some of their backstory without getting too overly detailed so that there is plenty left to emerge through play. So as an example, the player of the Vermissian Sage has to select another PC about whom he knows a secret, and then he says what that secret is, and if the other PC is aware that he knows or not. So it turns out Chthon knows who was the first person that Myridian the Knight killed, and Myridian isn't aware that he knows. Who was it, and why is this a secret? We don't yet know.

This is a pretty cool part of character creation. It takes away some control from the PC's player....but given the nature of the setting, not having full control over what's happened to you in your past seems fitting. It introduces elements that may prove interesting to play, but which are not so detailed as to be restrictive. It also helps establish some group dynamics and a sense that these characters know each other. So they all know each other....we decided to figure out exactly why.

We decided that the PCs were all childhood friends who were “clutch mates”, which means they were raised in the same hatchery (drow are born from eggs in the world of Spire, eggs that must be given blood to grow strong). They were nurtured by Sister Lenore, a priestess who helps care for drow young known as a Midwife (also a playable class). We decided that it was Sister Lenore who is their Magister, or overseer, in the Ministry. She raised them all on the blood of drow heroes, and knew that someday they would join the cause.

Once we were done with character creation and we decided on their mutual history with Sister Lenore, we talked about some of the expectations of play. The book lists several, and we just went down the list. I won’t reproduce them all here, but to summarize: this mission is too vast to expect to succeed; don’t expect play to result in toppling the aelfir hierarchy and freeing the drow. It’s instead about small victories. And ultimately, you are on your own in this; the Ministry will disavow you if you’re caught, your loved ones would turn you in if they knew you were a Minister, and the aelfir Solar Guard will hunt you down and kill you in the streets.

One way or another, this mission will destroy you.
 


So with character creation out of the way, we moved on to the beginning of the actual game.

Session 1
We opened our first game in the Works, an industrial area about a third of the way up-Spire, filled with factories and furnaces. The PCs have come to Sister Lenore’s hatchery at her request. They listen as she coats the drow eggs in blood, and tells them their mission. Another cell of the Ministry was discovered down-Spire in the lawless undercity district of Red Row. The cell members were brutally killed in the streets by a Paladin of the Solar Guard, Steel-Glints-In-Sunlight (many aelfir have this kind of naming convention, and used a shorter one word version in everyday converstion). Even worse, the cell’s Magister was discovered and, although grievously wounded, was taken alive. Far too injured to make the journey up-Spire, the Magister, a priest named Brother Bells, was taken to the nearby Hidden College for his wounds to be treated, and then for interrogation. Sister Lenore tasks the PCs with making sure that Brother Bells cannot be interrogated. That’s their primary task; she also asks them to find out whatever it was Bells and the other cell were investigating in Red Row, and also how they were discovered by the authorities.

The game is very player directed in its approach, but I felt for our first session and to get things started, establishing the initial premise was kind of necessary. How they would achieve their primary goal and investigate any of the secondary goals would really be entirely up to the players to decide, but I wanted to give them some clear sense of direction given that we're all new to the setting and the system. As we move forward, I expect to start to let them set their own agenda more and more.

Red Row
Spire's undercity is a generally lawless place. The powers that be don't much care for what happens down here so long as it doesn't interfere with their comfortable lives up-Spire. In fact, a lot of the drow nobility and even some aelfir can be found in the undercity, very often for an exciting night out of gambling and carousing. Red Row is a bustling place, filled with all sorts of vice dens and gambling halls and a gladiatorial arena run by gnolls. The district is a haven for criminals and outcasts, a dangerous place if you don't know your way around.

The first thing our PCs did upon arriving was to try and establish a base of operations. The Knight has a core ability called Pubcrawler, which allows him once per session to declare a nearby pub with an owner that he knows. So Myridian declared that they'd go to The Lone Wolf Pub to speak to the owner, Jenkins. I decided that Jenkins would be of neutral standing toward Myridian; they have mutual acquaintances, but Knights tend to get into barfights all the time, so he'd be a bit nervous having one about. So they arrive and rent some rooms and order a meal, and then before long, Myridian tries to ask Jenkins about recent events, notably the Paladin who killed several drow, playing the questions off as mere curiosity. This was going to be the first roll of the game.

So he wound up rolling 3d10 because he had a relevant Skill (Compel) and a relevant Domain (Low Society) and he gets one die just for the attempt. He rolled a 10, so a Critical Success! A good start to the game.

I decided that Jenkins shared what he knew about the event. The exact nature of the crimes committed by the slain drow is unclear, but Jenkins heard that they may have been spies for the Ministry. He knows of two people who saw the battle; Trill, a junkie who hangs out in Thread Needle Square, and Cannelure Hellion, the daughter of the leader of the Church of the Gun, a newly active cult in Red Row. One person survived the attack and was taken to the Hidden College to be treated (Red Row doesn't have anything quite like a hospital, so the college, a place of arcane study, was the next best thing).

Because the roll was a Critical, I decided to share some additional information. Jenkins explained that the Paladin Steel-Glints-In-the-Sunlight is not a stranger to Red Row, she sometimes comes down-Spire to see a fellow aelfir fight in the Arena. In fact, the aelfir gladiator, Proud-Shimmering-Beast-of-the-Dawn, is due to fight tonight. Jenkins also reveals that Steel-Glints has remained in Red Row since the attack, hinting that she has more to do here. She's taken up residence in Vorloren Standard, the one station of the city watch in the district. This is making the city watch members nervous.

The players conferred and decided that their main and immediate concern is to get into the Hidden College and find Brother Bells before he can recuperate enough to be "questioned". However, they don't want to wind up in a fight with the Paladin, so they decide they'll head over to the Arena, make sure that Steel-Glints is there to watch her comrade fight, and if so, then they'll head to the College.

The Arena
One of the main attractions for outsiders to come to Red Row, the Arena is run by the gnoll Crime Boss, Mother Moon. She's a canny and dangerous person, and she uses the idea of the "savage gnoll" as portrayed in aelfir propaganda to her benefit. In fact, gnolls are no more or less savage than the aelfir or drow. The PCs arrived on the scene, and I explained to them that crowds were forming outside the Arena as the preliminary matches were soon to begin.

Mother Moon’s gnolls were sporadically mixed into the crowd, keeping a sharp eye out for trouble. As the PCs made their way around, I portrayed how calm the gnoll guards seemed compared to most of the attendees. I decided that a roll would be in order for the PCs to somehow learn if Steel-Glints was in attendance or not. So Caspune the Idol decided to make the roll, using Sneak to blend in and stay unobserved (a skill he's needed to learn due to his growing fame as a musician). So he made the roll with 2d10. He rolled a 7, which is Success but with Stress. Caspune took 2 Stress to his Shadow Resistance, which is a measure of your anonymity and your cover. I rolled for Fallout, but with only 2 Stress so far it wasn't likely, so the Stress remains and does not yet convert to Fallout. If it had, a low total like that would have resulted in attention from the gnoll guards, I expect.

(In retrospect, I should have had them make a Group Move here. One PC is the leader of the Group Move and if that PC succeeds, then the others get to apply Mastery for an extra d10 on their rolls. It would have made sense since they had indicated that they were all in the crowd, looking for signs of the Paladin. I'll have to remember that the next time a similar situation comes up.)

So with the Success, Caspune located the entrance to the luxury seating reserved for the rich and powerful, and he took post there. It wasn't long before he saw the crowd part to let someone through, an aelfir in golden robes and an ornate mask (aelfir almost never show their faces in public). She floated along above the dirty cobblstones, not touching the ground. A huge greatsword hung from her back and scratched the stones as she floated along. She seemed to move in a bit of a halting way, as if the screeching of the sword on the stones was a tune she was playing. This was clearly Steel-Glints-In-the-Sunlight. Caspune considered calling out and attempting some social interaction, but the other players talked him out of it, saying to focus on their earlier decision to get to the College. He wisely listened, and so Caspune met back up with the others, and they headed toward the Hidden College.

I'll post about that when I get a chance. That's where the poo hit the fan, so to speak, and we had our first taste of combat.
 

Okay....so here's the rest of our fist session, where the PCs head to the Hidden College to find and somehow silence the wounded Brother Bells.

The College
Getting into the Hidden College wasn’t very difficult; the name refers to the fact that they're studying more esoteric topics here. So I didn't present any challenges to entry, but they had to figure out where Brother Bells may have been taken. The college was crafted from the earth itself, so it's a series of subterranean tunnels combined with more constructed areas. Very little effort is made to help people find their way around. Chthon the Vermissian Sage declared he wanted to Investigate to see if there was any way to determine where Brother Bells had been taken.

He has the Investigate Skill and the Academia Domain, so he rolled 3d10, and got a 9, so it was a full success! I explained that although all manner of strange or bizarre learning goes on here....from arcane studies to alchemy to fringe science....it's rare for anyone to actually be brought in bleeding. Chthon was able to find some traces of blood that trailed off from the central hub to a particular wing. They followed the trail, and found that this was the "Hall of Physical Thaumaturgy". Medical practices of all kinds are studied here. They quickly spotted a pair of college guards standing by one door, but no others, so they figured that was the place they needed to go.

So Caspune the Idol approached the guards and gave them some excuse that they were there to collect some items that belonged to the "guest". He made a reference to being there on behest of the Solar Guard. I called or a roll, and he made it with 3d10 as he has the Deceive Skill, and has an ability called "All Eyes on Me" which gives him Mastery on a roll to get peoples' attention. He rolled a 6, so he took some more stress. I rolled d3 and got a 1, and we applied that to his Mind resistance; we've established that Caspune is new to the cause and is very much the rookie on the squad, so boldly lying to the guards, even just private security guards like these, is making him very anxious. He's got a total of 3 Stress at this point. I made a Fallout roll and got above a 3, so no Fallout.

The Ward
So they managed to get inside, and found a clerk and a nurse in a reception area attached to a small triage type area, with 5 exam rooms, two on either side and one at the end, opposite the reception area. All the rooms were open and empty, with the exception of the one at the end, which had a closed door flanked by two members of the City Watch. Clearly, that had to be where Brother Bells was.

So the Watch Guards immediately go on alert. I told the PCs the clerk asks them their business, and they need to make a roll. Caspune makes a roll to convince them that the PCs have legit business here, and gets a full success. The clerk and the nurse go back to their conversation, assuming the PCs are here to pick up a piece of equipment needed by another department. As soon as Chthon starts moving about the ward, however, the City Watch takes notice. The first Guard asks Chthon what he needs and steps forward, while the second Guard puts a hand on his pistol.

Myridian the Knight sees this and decides it's time for action. He draws his sword and charges. So combat breaks out!

There's no initiative in Spire. You kind of alternate based on what makes sense. I figured Myridian should get the first roll under the circumstances. He hits the first Guard, dealing a few points of stress, but taking a few of his own because he got a partial success. I decided the that second guard drew his gun and fired, hitting Myridian for Blood Stress. However, Myridian wears heavy armor, which negates the first 3 Blood Stress taken. So that Stress is applied to his armor, and not to him.

The other two PCs attempt to get in on things, and things quickly started mounting. The more rolls you make in Spire, the more Stress is likely to pile up. So it wasn’t long before some of that Stress started to become Fallout.

Caspune the Idol took some Blood Fallout, and was Stunned for a few moments. He was grazed by a bullet, and was out of action for a few minutes. Chthon wasn't sure he'd be a lot of help in the fight, but pulled his dagger and did what he could.

Ultimately, the battle was won because of Myridian and the special abilities of the Knight. I want to highlight them here.

- Bulwark: Once per session, clear all stress marked to your armor.

This came in really handy, and kept Myridian in the fight longer. His armor gives him 3 free Blood Stress, so he's effectively able to double that to 6 by using this power.

- Knight Protector: Once per situation, when a nearby ally would take Blood stress from an enemy attack, you take it instead.

This ability kept Chthon from being taken out, but ratcheted the Knight’s Blood Stress back up. Ultimately, he finished off the first guard, but then got shot by the second pushing him to 8 Stress. I rolled for Fallout and got a 6, so his Stress became Moderate Fallout. The gunshot hit him in the leg below the knee, shattering the bone!

He crumpled to the ground, but then managed to draw his own pistol, and take the second guard out with a final shot. But with his leg broken, he's severely restricted in what he can do and how he can get about.

Caspune recovered at this point, and heard the sound of reinforcements outside. He quickly ducked out and used his All Eyes On Me ability to get everyone focused on him. His bloody face helped and he succeeded to Deceive the additional guards that there was an overwhelming force inside, and they’d be killed unless they got more men. One of them ran off to do so, and then Caspune wisely and quietly slipped away.

Meanwhile, in the Ward, Chthon made his way into the exam room and sure enough he found Brother Bells, unconscious on a cot. Unfortunately, the mad professor who was working on helping Brother Bells recover so he could be properly questioned was also in the room, and he slid a syringe into Chthon’s neck. He rolled to avoid the attack, but failed and was going to take Stress for this, but before I even got to that, the player triggered his special ability.

- That Didn’t Happen: Once per session, re-roll all the dice in your pool, as you reveal the events that just happened to be false.

So reality distorted and rewrote itself. He rerolled and got a 10, so no Stress. The Professor was flabbergasted, but didn’t make any more aggressive moves. Chthon let him run away, and then went out to drag Myridian into the exam room. He lifted the Knight up onto the bed with Brother Bells, and then opened a medicine chest, and used another special ability.

- Back Door: Once per session, you can find an entrance to the Vermissian Vault no matter where you are in Spire. (whether it was there before you started looking remains unclear). Inside, you’ll find a collection of strange items and peculiar books, many of which relate or come from alternate histories, and some of which tell the truth. Any non-Sage character who enters the Vault should roll Resist+Occult or suffer Mind stress.

So they escaped into the Vault. Myridian managed to not take any Stress, but I rolled for Brother Bells and he was not so lucky. The trip proved too much for him, and he died as a result, but spouted some final cryptic words (which should give the PCs some starting points for further investigation). We did one scene to wrap things up, and that was with Sister Lenore, and they confirmed that Brother Bells had died, which satisfied her. She asked if he had any last words, and Chthon told her that he did not. So the PCs are already not trusting their Magister, and keeping secrets. I love it.

****

All in all it was a very fun session. The game flows easily, and the rules are interesting, but easy. Any hiccups we had were minor and easily worked out, and I expect will be fewer as we proceed. The setting and the basic premise are both excellent and the material in the book and in supplemental materials is all very evocative. Seriously, the maps of the districts have so much going on and everything you look at just suggests ideas and obstacles.

Our next session will see the players deciding what to do rather than me giving them a mission. They have a general goal of finding out what the previous cell was looking into, and that can go any number of ways. There are a lot of interesting factions at play in Red Row, and as they encounter them, things will just naturally start to pile up. They’ll be setting their own agenda before too long, and I’ll just be responding to them.

Our next game is this Friday, so maybe I’ll have more to post soon.
 

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