The TOO MUCH SETTING issue (SPIRE reviewed by SU&SD)

Recently, one of my favourite board game review channels, Shut Up & Sit Down, did a cracking review of SPIRE by Rowan, Rook and Decard.


Now, reviewer Quinns pointed out that while SPIRE has a terrific campaign concept, the sheer amount of lore and setting that players are expected to know, playing natives of Spire, can be overwhelming and he as a GM had a tough time explaining all of it. Plus, as he notes, in a typical Spire campaign, most of the party will be dead in two months!!

What other campaign settings have you folks seen that are like this, specifically where PCs are expected to be locals familiar with their world?
 

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Recently, one of my favourite board game review channels, Shut Up & Sit Down, did a cracking review of SPIRE by Rowan, Rook and Decard.


Now, reviewer Quinns pointed out that while SPIRE has a terrific campaign concept, the sheer amount of lore and setting that players are expected to know, playing natives of Spire, can be overwhelming and he as a GM had a tough time explaining all of it. Plus, as he notes, in a typical Spire campaign, most of the party will be dead in two months!!

What other campaign settings have you folks seen that are like this, specifically where PCs are expected to be locals familiar with their world?

I’ll have to watch the video when I have a chance. I like Quinns as a reviewer, bit as a massive fan of Spire, I don’t think he’s being very fair.

While the book does have a ton of lore to draw upon, I don’t think the players or the GM needs to know more than the broad strokes. I certainly don’t! My campaign focused mostly on one district, with several factions involved. I overshare what the characters would know. It’s worked out just fine so far!

I find it comparable to Blades in the Dark. I think Spire presents more lore, but I think they do a great job of presenting it in such a way that it inspires rather than restricts.
 

I’ll have to watch the video when I have a chance. I like Quinns as a reviewer, bit as a massive fan of Spire, I don’t think he’s being very fair.

While the book does have a ton of lore to draw upon, I don’t think the players or the GM needs to know more than the broad strokes. I certainly don’t! My campaign focused mostly on one district, with several factions involved. I overshare what the characters would know. It’s worked out just fine so far!
Oh, it's a pretty positive review, he just felt he bit off more than he could chew by not restricting his campaign, and in fact he does recommend focusing the campaign on just one floor of Spire if you're starting out. 😀
 


TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
I played a bit of Spire and I kind of agree. The game has other qualities, but its very evocative and rich setting is, in my opinion, it's biggest one. But fully appreciate it, you have to dive in. I love lore, so for me as a player it was easy to just read through all the lore sections a few times and come very prepared. But other players that didn't have this propensity did not seem to connect as deeply with the game as I (and other lorenerds) did.

As @hawkeyefan said, there's tricks you can use to limit that "problem". Focusing on one district and having the players be from another part; put them in the role of the outsider. There's also quite a few mechanics and abilities that allow players to simply make up stuff and mold the setting as the game goes on, but once again we noticed a difference in experience between those that delved in the setting and those that did not.

Some settings are really about their lore, characters, places and history (World of Darkness, Symbaroum, Spire, etc), these tend to require a bigger investment to get the sweetest they have to offer. Other settings are more about a concept, a mood or an idea (Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Forbidden Lands) and you can easily swap stuff in and out without affecting what makes the setting.
 

Some settings are really about their lore, characters, places and history (World of Darkness, Symbaroum, Spire, etc), these tend to require a bigger investment to get the sweetest they have to offer. Other settings are more about a concept, a mood or an idea (Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Forbidden Lands) and you can easily swap stuff in and out without affecting what makes the setting.
Amen! Come to think of it, I played in a very successful Eclipse Phase campaign that would not have worked if the majority of us weren't deeply immersed into how the world works...
 

I think the reviewer is applying an overly trad perspective to Spire. As Howitt's said in at least one interview about the setting, their approach is "hooks, not history." So you won't find some sprawling timeline of key events or gobs of background lore you need to know to get started. All you need are the broadest strokes--high elves took over a Drow city at some point, and you want to take it back. That's it. Everything else, all those super cool hooks that every Spire book is packed with, you can pick up as a player as you go.

IMO one of the best things about Spire is that its setting is a box of compelling, evocative toys, that you're obviously supposed to play rough with and tear the heads off of. My campaign shouldn't really look or sound like yours, especially since each one might wind up focusing on a single tossed-away hook in a book (or books, now) packed with them.
 

Voadam

Legend
I played in a World of Warcraft RPG game having never played WoW and having no real knowledge of the world lore but owning the Manual of Monsters d20 book for use in my own d20 games. I played a jungle troll barbarian who did not have a background in anything outside of his homeland and was exploring the world with new friends who were all familiar with the setting lore.

It worked fine and I enjoyed it.

If I had tried to play a political insider dealing with faction politics it would have been a different situation with the DM and the information they provide being a big factor.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I’ll have to watch the video when I have a chance. I like Quinns as a reviewer, bit as a massive fan of Spire, I don’t think he’s being very fair.

While the book does have a ton of lore to draw upon, I don’t think the players or the GM needs to know more than the broad strokes. I certainly don’t! My campaign focused mostly on one district, with several factions involved. I overshare what the characters would know. It’s worked out just fine so far!

I find it comparable to Blades in the Dark. I think Spire presents more lore, but I think they do a great job of presenting it in such a way that it inspires rather than restricts.
I have heard you talk about The Spire many times, and I trust your sense that The Spire is a great game. I do find the setting to be a little too niche and involved for my taste, even if it boils down to oppressed drow versus the System. I agree, however, that there does tend to be some degree of special pleading where some reviewers have no problems with some vastly detailed lore-dense settings while chastising others for having similar levels of lore-density.
 

I love The Spire, but there is a huge amount of strangeness for people to keep track of with the worldbuilding, that steps so far outside the realm of "baseline fantasy." At the same time, there are so many adventure ideas and hooks laced in the lore.

One thing that I think would be very useful would be a concise PDF of "what you know as a PC" to help make players feel more at home in the setting.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Now, reviewer Quinns pointed out that while SPIRE has a terrific campaign concept, the sheer amount of lore and setting that players are expected to know, playing natives of Spire, can be overwhelming and he as a GM had a tough time explaining all of it. Plus, as he notes, in a typical Spire campaign, most of the party will be dead in two months!!

What other campaign settings have you folks seen that are like this, specifically where PCs are expected to be locals familiar with their world?
L5R has this issue, despite being "Rokugan, Not Japan"... but the level of it varies by group and especially by GM. 5E having dropped the post-1E timeline, it's much easier again...

Several D&D settings had this issue, too... Dark Sun, Spelljammer, and (to a lesser extent) Dragonlance. The lore includes a bunch of elements that, if players don't grok them, but the GM doesn't nerf them, will hurt the PCs badly...
Dark Sun, the rules for rations are brutal - you can't expect to forage on the way, either.
Spelljammer, seeing there are beholders on that shipp and attacking may in fact be far more a messy form of suicide for Name Level PC's than a single one at first in a dungeon.
Dragonlance changes a bunch of things, especially the Irda... so its assumptions are going to bite. Plus, the tracking of good vs evil acts....

Mechanical Dream has so much setting that is so weird that there is no way I can present it intelligibly; mostly because I'm not sure I understand it.

Albedo is one of those cases where the game runs fine with fans of the comics, but everyone else seems to try and force it into slapstick humor, pissing off the fans of the comic AND ruining the game.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I love The Spire, but there is a huge amount of strangeness for people to keep track of with the worldbuilding, that steps so far outside the realm of "baseline fantasy." At the same time, there are so many adventure ideas and hooks laced in the lore.
The strangeness also sometimes extends to the playbooks themselves. Sometimes I have noticed that some PbtA family games can lean into their setting so hard with niche, esoteric playbooks, which can be off-putting and alienating to players.* They may want to play, for example, a warrior rather than a "Knight of the Missing Sock whose cursed eyes bleed a terrible poisonous mutagen that gradually morphs their mangled cybernetic body into a rat monster." There will be people who love this sort of thing, but it's IME difficult to get new players into things like that.

* IME, Magpie Games, in contrast, tend to create more open-ended playbooks for some of their games (e.g., Masks, Avatar Legends, etc.) that make it easier to map more generalized character concepts onto a playbook.

One thing that I think would be very useful would be a concise PDF of "what you know as a PC" to help make players feel more at home in the setting.
Agreed. That would also be helpful for a fledgling GM.
 

Yeah, The Spire needs everyone at the table to be invested in the setting. I'm fine with that, but yeah, there are people that just want to show up and hit monsters, or want to be free to create their own character concept.

The strangeness also sometimes extends to the playbooks themselves. Sometimes I have noticed that some PbtA family games can lean into their setting so hard with niche, esoteric playbooks, which can be off-putting and alienating to players.* They may want to play, for example, a warrior rather than a "Knight of the Missing Sock whose cursed eyes bleed a terrible poisonous mutagen that gradually morphs their mangled cybernetic body into a rat monster." There will be people who love this sort of thing, but it's IME difficult to get new players into things like that.

* IME, Magpie Games, in contrast, tend to create more open-ended playbooks for some of their games (e.g., Masks, Avatar Legends, etc.) that make it easier to map more generalized character concepts onto a playbook.


Agreed. That would also be helpful for a fledgling GM.
 

Mercurius

Legend
This seems like an occupational hazard with high concept rpgs and settings - the higher the concept, the harder it is to bring to life fully. Someone mentioned Mechanical Dream, which is a great example: terrific concept, but how much gaming can you get out of it, except for a very few number of people for whom the flavor combination is just right?

Or a couple RPGs on my shelf that I've only barely browsed, that seem to fit a similar category: Nibiru and Black Void. Or the old game Aria, which wasn't as much high concept in terms of the setting, but the game itself - and how much it asked of the players involved.

Anyhow, I'm definitely going to pick Spire up at some point. Sounds very well done.
 


Some great posts in this thread. I’ve been busy this week so I’ve not had a lot of time to post. I finally managed to watch the video, and clearly it’s a positive review of Spire (and Heart, too).

To address the criticism Quinns brought up, and which has been echoed here, I think there’s something to it, but I also think how much of an issue it may be will depend on the GM and their group.

I don’t think that anyone is expected to know all the lore from the book. I doubt the authors Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor know it all! I think you’re supposed to use what appeals to you, and ignore what doesn’t. Again, the ideas in the books are meant to inspire, not to handcuff.

When it comes to the characters being from Spire and therefore expecting to know a lot of the basics of the city, I don’t think it needs to be an issue. When a question like that comes up, I either share the information with the players (“You know that Mr. Winters is the crimelord in Red Row who sells guns to the High Elves”) or I ask them questions and we come up with what’s true.

It actually works well. My game has largely taken place in one district, and I think that’s a good idea. We decided all the PCs are from that district (Red Row), but have been away on their durance for a few years (durance is the period of indentured servitude that all drow must perform), so there are things and people they know, and there are also things that have changed. I’ve involved several factions, but introduced them gradually over many sessions as needed/appropriate.

The classes being very specific to the setting actually helps in a lot of ways. It brings some of the setting elements to the forefront.

I’d agree that the themes and the basic premise are very specific, and they do determine how the game will go and how it will feel. I’ll say that my PCs have gotten up to enough hijinks that would apply to groups other than resistance fighters, so it may be possible to play a campaign of another sort. But I can’t really say that for certain.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
The strangeness also sometimes extends to the playbooks themselves. Sometimes I have noticed that some PbtA family games can lean into their setting so hard with niche, esoteric playbooks, which can be off-putting and alienating to players.* They may want to play, for example, a warrior rather than a "Knight of the Missing Sock whose cursed eyes bleed a terrible poisonous mutagen that gradually morphs their mangled cybernetic body into a rat monster." There will be people who love this sort of thing, but it's IME difficult to get new players into things like that.

* IME, Magpie Games, in contrast, tend to create more open-ended playbooks for some of their games (e.g., Masks, Avatar Legends, etc.) that make it easier to map more generalized character concepts onto a playbook.


Agreed. That would also be helpful for a fledgling GM.
I've been reading my Avatar PDFs now that they availed through BackerKit, and I am really impressed with how they combine being robust and flexible. Really great implementation of playback mechanics that will allow for both helping channel people into appropriate options while providing the freedom to he creative.
 

Mezuka

Hero
I bought all the D&D Gazeteers back in the day. I ended up using only the maps, locations and floor plans. Too much info to read and retain for my hyperactive brain. Plus I quickly discovered you don't need so much info to run an engaging campaign for the players.
 
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aramis erak

Legend
I bought all the D&D Gazeteers back in the day. I ended up using only used the maps, locations and floor plans. Too much info to read and retain for my hyperactive brain. Plus I quickly discovered you don't need so much info to run an engaging campaign for the players.
I use the new classes in Alfheim, Rockhome, Five Shires, Orks of Thar, and Shadow Elves whether or not I use the maps. It's also worth noting that any one of the GAZ books can support an entire campaign within just the one region.

I've never had a player want to add one of the secondary classes - an idea I generally liked as done, with special XP for those mechanting/sailing activies... but it was a well thought out way to branch the game to economics.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
This is why I generally avoid running TTRPGs based on rich, established settings. Even those of which I'm a big fan, like Lord of the Rings or The Expanse. Sometimes knowing a lot about the lore makes it even more daunting. Knowing a lot about rich settings makes you realize how much you don't know.

I did buy and enjoyed reading The Expanse and I did run a game of it. I really like the rules. But if I were to run a mini campaign, I would make it clear that it was only INSPIRED by and will not follow the plot and all the lore of the books and TV series. But then that just leads me to questioning why not just run a more generic setting that I can just customize at will?
 

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