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Sunday 28 October 2018

Stressful Sedition

Two centuries ago, the Aelfir—or ‘High Elves’—invaded the Spire, a mile-high tower city in the land of the Destra, the Drow, and subjugated the Dark Elves. Whether the Spire is a fossilised tree of flesh and bone, the larval form of a deity, or a vast consensual hallucination accepted by all as real, the Aelfir forced the Drow into the city’s lower levels and destroyed their temples. Where they had once worshipped all three facets of Damnou, the moon goddess, the Drow are only allowed to venerate the one, Limyé, Our Glorious Lady and the Light Side of the Moon, by their Aelfir masters. All Drow are expected to enter a four year period of indentured service, known as ‘Durance’, with the Aelfir, some hauling raw materials to the furnaces in the Works, harvesting fruit or tending algae vats in the Garden, some swathed in protective clothing against the sun in as soldiers in the Allied Defence Force, and others entering personal service of some Aelfir Lord or Lady as a personal assistant, pet, duellist, emissary, and so on. The Aelfir, creatures of great beauty and colour and magic, enjoy lives of luxury in the Spire’s higher levels and although do run the Spire or undertake great acts of art or study, most spend in the pleasure domes. Yet from amongst the drudgery and poverty of the Works and the Garden Districts has arisen a threat to this order, The Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, or simply, the Ministry. Its members venerate the dark side of the moon, the goddess of poisons and lies, shadows and secrets, her worship outlawed on pain of death, and they are sworn to destroy and subvert the dominion of the Aelfir over the Drow and the Spire.

This is the setting for Spire: The City Must Fall, a roleplaying game published by Rowan, Rook, and Decard Ltd. following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is a roleplaying game of secrets and lies, trust and betrayal, violence and subversion, conspiracy and consequences, and of committing black deeds for a good cause. It is for want of a better description, a roleplaying game of fantasy- or Elf-punk, one which combines Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast with Gareth Evans’ The Raid, William Gibson’s Neuromancer with the television series, Peaky Blinders, and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station with Blade Runner. There is technology and there is magic, but neither influence the ‘Punk’, the attitude of the Spire’s protagonists, who are rising up from the streets as the cell of a rebel movement to overthrow their High Elf masters. It is these protagonists that the players will roleplay, Drow who have completed their Durance and who in the eyes of the state have joined an illegal organisation and engaged in an outlawed practice. They are resistance fighters with a righteous cause, but to the state, they are rebels, criminals, and worse, terrorists. The question is, how far will they go to bring about the change they desire, what acts will they commit, and what are the likely consequences?

In comparison to other roleplaying games, the fantasy of Spire: The City Must Fall is a low fantasy. Divine magic, the magic learned from the church or temple is weak compared to occult magic, but occult magic is potent, unreliable, and likely to fry your brain, whilst magic items are rare. Similarly, there are no monsters—both protagonists and antagonists are people, although the protagonists are Drow, whereas the antagonists might be Drow, Aelfir, or Humans. Also, there are morality mechanics, rather the morality comes the choices that the player characters make and the actions they take, all of which take place within the urban and industrial confines of the Spire.

A character in Spire: The City Must Fall is defined by his Durance, what he did before being recruited by the Ministry, and his Class, what he does now. Together, these grant Skills, Domains, Abilities, Resistances, and Bonds. Skills are what he can do such as Compel, Fight, or Steal, whilst Domains are areas of knowledge and expertise like Crime, High Society, or Religion. Abilities are things a Player Character can do granted by a Class, such as the ‘Cut a Deal’ of the mercantile Azurite Class, some granted by the Class, others a player must select. Resistances—Blood, Mind, Silver (money), Shadow (secrecy), and Reputation—represent a character’s capacity to withstand Stress in particular categories. Suffer too much and a Player Character will be subject to fallout, which can be Minor, Moderate, or Severe. Whilst fallout reduces a character’s Stress from a particular Resistance, it has consequences. For example, a Minor Fallout for a character’s Reputation might be that he tells a lie which will cause a problem later on, whilst a Moderate Fallout for Blood could be a broken arm. Bonds are connections to NPCs who can help or hinder a player character and if they suffer Stress, then the potential Fallout will affect the relationship.

To create a character, a player selects a Durance and a Class. From the Class a player needs to choose two Low Advances—essentially two minor improvements to the character, pick some equipment, and name some Bonds. The Durances range from Acolyte and Agent to Sage and Spy, options are included should a Drow manage to have avoided his Durance. The Classes include the Azurite, wheel-dealer and hustler; the Bound, acrobatic vigilante; the Carrion-Priest, heretical death-worshippers who believe that the dead should be eaten by holy hyenas to ensure the safety of their solus; the Firebrand, rabble-rousing revolutionary; the Idol, artist-sorcerer and revolutionary; the Knight, ancient order fallen into criminal dishonour; the Lajhan, priests of Our Glorious Lady, the Light Side of the Moon; the Masked, who know the ways of Aelfir society at the top of the Spire; the Midwife, arachnid defenders of the Drow who tender to their young; and the Vermissian Sage, Drow historians who hide their research in an abandoned, non-Euclidean, maze-like, mass transport network that runs throughout the Spire. All eight Classes are interesting and nicely pull each character type into the setting of the Spire.

Our sample character is Yashek. He served his four years as a scribe and then sage to an Aelfir lord who was attempting to write a history of the Drow. His own researches eventually lead him to the strange network of tunnels and corridors beyond and inside the Spire and to learning some Occult magic.

Durance: Sage
Class: Vermissian Sage

Skills: Compel, Fix, Investigate
Domains: Academia, Occult, Technology
Abilities: Back Door (to the Vault), The Vault, Obsessive Researcher
Advances (Low): That Didn’t Happen, Mental Directory
Resistances: Blood, Mind 6, Silver, Shadow 1, Reputation

Refresh: Uncover hidden information.

Bonds: Herik, researcher in the vault; Player Character with a Secret

Equipment: Dagger (concealable)

It is interesting to note that Spire: The City Must Fall there is no experience point system. Instead, player characters are rewarded for making a change—for good or ill. Make a small change and a character will gain a Low advance, make a moderate change and he can choose a Medium advance, and so on. What you have here then, is an experience system driven by the ends not the means, the narrative rather than the mechanics.

Mechanically, Spire: The City Must Fall uses dice pools of ten-sided dice. Whenever a character wants to undertake an action, his player rolls a ten-sided die. A result of a one is a critical failure, two to five is a failure, six and seven is a success at a cost, eight and nine a success, and ten is a critical success. A player can add more dice to the roll if his character has an appropriate Skill, Domain, or Mastery over the Skill or Domain. For example, Yashek’s would only roll one ten-sided in combat because he does not have the Fight skill; two dice for Yashek to persuade someone using the Compel skill; and three dice if he was attempting to mend a scanning device using the Fix skill and the Technology domain. No more than four dice can be rolled for an action and only the highest counts. The Game Master can adjust the difficulty by removing one or two dice from a player’s dice pool.

Unless a player rolls eight or more, the result of an action will inflict Stress upon the Player Character, the type depending upon the nature of the action—the more stressful the situation, the greater the die type the Game Master rolls to determine the Stress suffered. For example, using Compel to persuade a watch patrol to let you go might inflict Minor Stress or a three-sided die, Moderate Stress or a six-sided die if the watch captain is present, or Severe Stress or an eight-sided die if the watch commander is involved. Taking Stress can result in a character Fallout, actual consequences of his actions. In some situations though, a character can withstand Stress because of a high Resistance. So a character with a high Blood Resistance is tough or can parry blows; a high Mind indicates strength of will; a high Silver is wealth and resources; a Shadow is a good cover or well-kept secrets; and a Reputation is good standing with a group. Some equipment, such as armour for Blood, can enhance a Resistance. 

Once a character starts taking Stress, the Game Master keeps track of both the type and the total for all of a character’s Stress. If she rolls under that total on a ten-sided die, then the character loses Stress, but gains Fallout, effectively injuring something related to the Resistance. It is also possible to remove Stress by laying low—but essentially, this takes the character out of the story for a scene; by using a Class Refresh Action; or by undertaking an action that remove stress, for example, borrowing money to reduce Silver Stress or going to a doctor to reduce Blood Stress.
For example, Yashek borrowed a scanner from the Vault without permission, but it got broken on a mission. He needs to repair it before he can return it. His player rolls three dice—one plus one each for Yashek’s Fix Skill and Technology Domain. He rolls 1, 4, and 6. The highest result is a six, meaning that he succeeds, but at a cost. The Game Master rolls a three-sided die for Stress, inflicting three points of Stress. The Game Master now rolls for Fallout and rolls a one, indicating a Minor Fallout and a reduction his Reputation Stress by three points. Since this is against Yashek’s Reputation, the Game Master decides that this will result in his committing a Lie about how the device got damaged.
Both Combat and Magic—whether Divine or Occult—uses the same mechanics, the Stress from their outcomes will primarily affect the Blood Resistance or the Mind Resistance respectively. The magic itself is represented by various Class abilities and advances, rather than a separate set of mechanics. Similarly, Bonds can also suffer Stress, so a Player Character’s connection can degrade too. Overall, the fact that Fallout is rolled against a Player Character’s total Stress means that the mechanics in Spire: The City Must Fall have a really brutal feel to them (though alternative rules are provided should a group decide they are too brutal). The players will need to move carefully if their characters are to avoid accumulating Stress, but as stories and plots ramp up, the more their actions should have consequences and the greater the Stress involved.

A good two fifths of Spire: The City Must Fall is devoted to the setting and background the tower city. What is interesting about the descriptions is that they are tied thematically to several of the Domains—Academia, Commerce, Crime, High Society, Low Society, Occult, Order, and Religion, though not Technology. The districts and factions related to these domains are rich in detail and hooks for the Game Master to build her campaign around. There is a lot here for the Game Master to bring out and the density of the material may be a hindrance for the Game Master in setting up her campaign.

That said, there is good advice for the Game Master on how to run Spire: The City Must Fall. This includes general advice as well as examining the game’s themes and in turn, the three stages of a revolution in the Spire—the Gathering Storm, the Strike, and the Aftermath. It also includes a discussion of what makes a good villain and how to make the city the Game Master’s own. A nice touch that it examines what players are expecting when they select a particular Class. It is followed by seven appendices, in turn describing the new gods and cults to be found in the Spire, giving tables of random events and things, providing a Drow glossary, describing the ‘Rumoured Goats of Spire’(!?), hinting at the arcologies of ancient race known as the Prokatos to be found far beyond the walls of Spire, adding tables of antagonists, and listing suggested media. The contents of the latter is helpful to get the feel and tone of Spire: The City Must Fall beyond the rich description given earlier.

Physically, Spire: The City Must Fall is an attractive hardback, cleanly laid out and sturdily illustrated in an imposing style. The writing is also enjoyable, but not always clear where it needs to be. For example, it is not readily apparent that the mechanics are primarily player facing, that is, the players do the majority of rolling the dice with the Game Master only really rolling for Fallout and its effects. Which very much changes how the game is run by the Game Master. What is also missing is a starting point for the player characters and their revolution, is an easy hook to get a campaign begun. Now, arguably Spire: The City Must Fall is not designed to played or run by players or Game Masters new to roleplaying, but that starting point would nevertheless have been useful.

Spire: The City Must Fall inverts traditional fantasy, making the traditional enemy in fantasy—the Drow—into the victim. It makes the enlightened golden boys of fantasy—the High Elves—into the enemy. Yet, it does not make the Drow the heroes, freedom fighters with whom we can easily identify with. Rather, it pushes them towards ends justifying the means and into a moral grey area where they might actually be the terrorists that their Aelfir subjugators claim them to be. Spire: The City Must Fall is a superb dark fantasy roleplaying game where the overthrow of the state is ultimately attainable and good, but the consequences of the actions taken to get there are the point of playing.

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