The Independents: Spire

Different genres of role-playing game have different implied stories. Thanks to D&D the most common implied story of a fantasy game is one of adventurers growing into heroes as they make their way across a treacherous land of monsters and dungeons. Thanks to Cyberpunk 2020, the implied story of a Cyberpunk game is one of operators from the fringes of society alternating between struggling to survive and pushing back against the forces which control them. What if you took the story mode of Cyberpunk and placed it, whole-cloth, into a fantasy setting? Then you’d have Spire, a game which takes setting notes from D&D and Steampunk, story notes from Cyberpunk, and mechanical notes from Apocalypse World and blends them all into something wholly unique.

Spire is the latest game designed by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor. The duo are also behind Unbound and Goblin Quest, and Howitt alone has designed some (in)famous games like Honey Heist and Doctor Magnethands. Spire is their most ambitious game yet, taking a deliberate and unique mechanical design and adding to it a fully fleshed out world, resulting in a game which spares no time in making its players answer some uncomfortable questions.

When talking about world-building in Spire, we first have to talk about the Drow, especially in the context of D&D. The Drow are dark elves, evil elves who worship the spider goddess Lolth. Thanks to the Great Curse, they cannot face the sun and live in the Underdark, a massive underground network of caves home to many foul creatures. While most Drow are inherently evil, there are exceptions, like the well-known Drizz’t Do’Urden. I’m going to stop right there. A race of dark-skinned creatures who are inherently evil, otherwise identical to another race (who isn’t evil) save their skin color? The Drow have been and continue to be one of the more uncomfortable elements of the D&D implied setting, because at best they’re tone-deaf and at worst racist. Now let’s turn to Spire. The Drow were the original inhabitants of the land around the Spire, but they are now ruled over by High Elves, the Aelfir. The great curse is, within the book, implied to be merely folklore, but the High Elves suppress any knowledge that the Drow are a separate species and not really cursed at all. Now you have an underclass, oppressed by a race who is trying to hide any knowledge that the basis for their oppression is in fact false. How do we know this is central to the story? Because every PC is a Drow. Their story is the game’s story.

This sets up the premise of the game very well. The PCs are Drow who together form a cell of a revolutionary organization, trying to take back Spire from the Aelfir oppressors. In true Cyberpunk fashion, change can almost never be permanent and lasting change isn’t always good. The twist here that’s usually provided by technology in Cyberpunk games, be it cybernetics, computer networks, or transhumanist body switching, is here provided by Spire itself. Spire as a structure is a mystery within the game’s text; no one is entirely sure what it is or how it got there. The designers provide a lot of ideas which may be harbored by individuals within the setting, but they’re wide-ranging and contradictory. The Spire is an ancient arcology. The Spire is an outgrowth of the planet itself. The Spire is a prison built around some horrible demonic being. Which is true? The GM can decide. Or not, if the mystery serves your game better.

One of my favorite elements of the world-building in this game is that the designers toe an incredibly difficult line between providing tons of information and story hooks, and giving GMs lots of leeway to make the story their own. The way they do this is writing the world as much as possible from the perspective of its inhabitants, but giving equal weight to many different perspectives and theories. The best distillation of this comes from the intro to a sidebar later in the book: These are all methods people have used to speak to the dead. Some of them may even work. This works beautifully at creating a world steeped with mystery, without creating the metaplot issues associated with trying to hide parts of the text from players.

Beyond the broad setting strokes, the world of Spire is lovingly detailed. Every district of the city is written up in full, complete with setting notes, major NPCs, plot hooks and organizations. The majority of the book is taken up by these districts, and each one feels unique. The districts are organized by what stratum of society is dominant there: high society, low society, criminals, merchants, and government each play a significant role and have their own key locations. In addition to broad social classes, there are more specific organizations which can also hook into the game’s mechanics.

The rules of the game are fairly straightforward, and borrow somewhat from Powered by the Apocalypse games while still being quite different. The main die rolled is a d10, and every roll has a set of fixed results based on the number of the die. A 1 is a critical failure, a 10 is a critical success, and in between are failures, successes with cost, and successes. The results on the dice are never modified, instead you roll a number of dice based on your character and the task, and take the die which rolls the highest. You always start with one die. If your character has an appropriate Skill for the task, you can roll an additional die. There are nine Skills, high-level ones like Fix, Fight, Resist, and Sneak. If your character has an appropriate Domain for the task, you can roll an additional die. Domains are the important knowledge areas within Spire, like Academia, High Society, and Technology. Finally, if you have Mastery over a skill or domain, you can roll an additional die. Mastery may be granted by equipment or circumstance, but it only adds one die no matter how many sources of mastery you have. After assembling your dice pool, the GM may sometimes take away one or two dice depending on the difficulty of the task. In the end, you will roll somewhere between one and four dice; since the actual numbers are never modified the range of results remains fairly constrained, though five results is more broad than Apocalypse World’s three.

Advancement in the game does not include any roll modifiers or “skill increases”. Instead, you can gain Advances, which give your character new abilities. Advances are categorized into low, medium, and high, and the way a character earns advances is by making changes to the world of Spire. The degree of the change corresponds with the magnitude of Advance you can earn, and the range is great. A low Advance may gain you a new skill or a spell-like ability, a high Advance could mean communing with Gods or taking the form of a powerful beast. While there are Advances that anyone can take if they meet the prerequisites, the bulk of the Advances (and the most interesting ones) are tied to your character’s class.

The character classes in Spire are a hybrid between D&D-type classes and Playbooks from Apocalypse World. While you establish some portion of your starting skills and domains from a Durance (a character background, representing a period of indentured servitude your character undertook prior to game start), most of your abilities are defined by your class. The classes are driven by what the characters do in-game, but with very unique flavor. The Firebrand is a revolutionary, the Masked is a master of deception and savoir-faire, and the Vermissian Sage is a seeker of hidden knowledge, a master of non-Euclidean geometry and the Vermissian, Spire’s failed transit network. Other classes include the Azurite, the Bound, the Carrion-Priest, the Idol, the Knight, the Lahjan, and the Midwife. The classes have the setting flavor of Apocalypse World playbooks but the mechanical differentiation of D&D classes, and each implies a different mode of play, much like how a Wizard and a Fighter in D&D would play quite differently.

The last major mechanic of the game is Stress. Each character has five stress tracks: Blood, Mind, Silver, Shadow, and Reputation (physical, mental, financial, cover identity, and, well, reputation). These five are treated equally, meaning that combat and social encounters can be equally risky, although they’ll play out differently. Like Apocalypse World, Spire is player-facing; the GM does not roll dice for any opposing actions on behalf of NPCs. Instead, players will declare what their character intends to do, and roll. The result of the dice as well as fictional positioning state whether or not the character takes stress, and of what type. Each class gets a Refresh action to remove stress, but other than that, the only way to remove stress is to take your character out of the action, which has significant risk in terms of the plot. Take too much stress and you suffer Fallout. Every time a character takes stress, the GM rolls a d10 and compares it to the amount of stress the character has suffered in total. If the roll is lower than the amount of stress, the character suffers Fallout, of a severity which depends on the margin between the die and the stress level. While minor Fallout is usually a small problem, Major Fallout generally means you’re about to die or wish you were dead. Fallout does remove some stress after being inflicted, so your character isn’t trapped in a death spiral the moment your stress levels go up. Still, the game is fairly ruthless as written, though it includes an optional rule which is a bit more forgiving, counting each stress track individually instead of in total.

The game does feel like PbtA, with a fixed set of die results, player-facing mechanics, and lots of setting material which has plenty of leeway for customization. The GM advice carries this on, though in a different way from many PbtA games. The game is given a distinct three-act structure, and the GM section provides guidance for each of these acts, how to write a villain which ties them all together, and how to highlight specific character classes. This section drives home what Howitt and Taylor wanted to do with this game: take a lot of the structure and principles that work so well in PbtA, but give more numerical guidance to make the game feel more grounded, and many more character options to reduce the feeling of being trapped within a Playbook. The designers also addressed another common complaint about PbtA, player-facing worldbuilding, by building up a much more specific world with significantly more structure and GM information. The reason this all works is that even in addressing aspects of PbtA that some don’t like or have trouble with, the design of Spire still acknowledges that each of these mechanical choices is deliberate, and doesn’t dispense with any of them entirely.

The Spire has joined Blades in the Dark in the group of games which take the design philosophies of Apocalypse World and run with them, creating something thoroughly different but yet obviously inspired by the PbtA corpus. In some ways this makes Spire’s dark fantasy setting unfortunate, as differentiating itself from Blades in the Dark is now that much harder. Mechanically, the games have taken very different approaches: Blades in the Dark doubles down on gang mechanics and heist play, while Spire is nearly Lovecraftian in its dark magic, mysteries, and struggles against powerful forces both known and unknown. Spire’s mechanics are simple but still evocative, and the setting is lovingly detailed and brimming with plot hooks. Tying it all together is a gorgeous book, with full-page artwork which is both unique and evocative. My hope is that Spire gets a lot of attention; it showcases both thought out and innovative mechanical design as well as a setting that requires thoughtful engagement and directly challenges problematic fantasy tropes. Better yet, it crams all of this into less than 230 pages. Spire has exceeded my expectations, and is a game the fans of fantasy, steampunk, and cyberpunk should all consider buying.

Spire is available directly from Rowan, Rook, and Decard. Header Image is by Adrian Stone, commissioned for Spire.


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