An Introduction

posted by LazyAngel Original SA post

Heart: The City Beneath
01 - An Introduction

Heart is an rpg by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor, a sequel of sorts to their previous game, Spire, a game of murder and covert rebellian, which I reviewed in this thread some time ago. Heart's their newest release (PDFs dropped on the 1st of April), and it works as both a kind of sequel to Spire, and as a second iteration of the core mechanics. My review of Spire was a bit of just a read-through, but I've been running it for my ground for a bit, and so I'll see if I can add in my observations about Heart as I go.

Before I start, however, I'd like to point out that if anything here immediately grabs your interest, the game itself can be bought here, or the (free) quickstart rules can be found here. The creators also have a podcast; Hearty Dice Friends, which is well worth listening to. Oh, and the excellent layout design was done by our very own Flavivirus, so you'd be supporting goon-adjacent projects there!

So what's it all about? Whereas Spire concerned itself with the titular mile-high city, Heart goes deep beneath, down towards the crack in reality that sits under the city - bad enough at the best of times, but when enterprising engineers tried to use it as the basis of a mass transit system, things went from bad to worse. So it's delving deep into the earth, rather than conspiring against the powers that be, and the PCs are the kind of people who'd end up doing this for a living; the obsessed, desperate or forced.

Next: I'll give an overview of the system

Game Mechanics

posted by LazyAngel Original SA post

Heart: The City Beneath
02 - Game Mechanics

So the mechanical underpinnings of Heart haven't changed much from Spire, it's mostly a matter of clarity, and a bit more consistency. I'll note significant changes here in italics.

Characters in Heart have four elements that tie directly into the core mechanics - Skills, Domains, Knacks and Stress tracks.

Skills are the things a character can do well, and are binary - you either have them, or you don't. There's only nine of them, and given that characters will generally start with only a few (at least one, could be up to three or four at absolute most), you end up pretty specialised. The nine skills in Heart are Compel (persuasion and intimidation of any kind), Discern (general perception), Endure, Evade, Hunt (track stuff down), Kill, Mend (healing bodies, fixing equipment) and Sneak (all kinds of stealth).

Obviously the main change is the available skills are mostly different, with the exception of Sneak and Compel. Heart doesn't have nearly as much of an emphasis on social interaction as Spire, and characters are generally much more pragmatically-focused - see Kill and Endure instead of Fight and Resist, for example. Also Heart PCs are much, much more focused than Spire PCs - a character in the latter can easily get up to 4/5 skills at creation.

Domains are also areas of experience, and you also either have them, or you don't, but they're broad categories relating to different areas of the Heart (and the things that live there). The seven Domains are Cursed (places the Heart directly touches), Desolate (wastelands, abandoned settlements), Occult (any hidden or arcane lore), Religion, Technology, Warren (cramped spaces, twisting corridors), Wild (general flora and fauna). Once again, you're not likely to have more than one or two at character creation.

Once again, characters are a bit more focussed here, with respect to Domains, and this helps, I think, define party roles a bit more cleanly. Obviously the Domains are very different, due to the very different setting, and I feel there's considerably less overlap between them in Heart.

Knacks are very-specific specialisations that you pick up if you end up getting a given skill or domain a second time, or from certain class abilities, and are usually player-defined.

No change from Spire, but Knacks are often handed out in class advances in lieu of giving access to entire Skills or Domains.

So how do these go together? Whenever a roll is called for (and we're talking for actions that are important and/or challenging), you assemble a dice pool of one to four d10, roll them, and take the highest value, applying the result on the following table;

When situations are even more fraught, a roll can be considered Risky or Dangerous - removing the highest one or two results from the rolled pool, further reducing the chances of success (if you'd end up having no dice left, you only roll one dice, and can only succeed on a 10, albeit at a cost).

This is generally unchanged from Spire, but difficulty removes dice after the roll, making higher difficulties much more dangerous. Also, in Heart you can't have difficulty 3 rolls or higher, they're just rated as impossible.

So... Stress is the consequences of failing rolls, or succeeding only at a cost. It's also what you inflict on opponents or situations when you roll well, and it's inflicted either way by the roll of a dice; from d4 to d12, with some effects adjusting the dice type up or down (notably, rolling a critical success). Generally, something not particuarly dangerous causes d4 stress, using appropriate gear tends to inflict d6, and exotic weaponry and specialised tools deal d8 and upwards.

For NPCs, stress is generally applied against a single resistance value - once this is gone, the NPC is defeated/driven off/successfully persuaded. The same goes for less animate obstacles - notably forging a route between various landmarks of the Heart. For players, however, stress is applied to one of five tracks; Blood (physical injury and exhaustion), Mind (madness and coping with weirdness), Echo (the Heart's twisting and corruptive effects), Fortune (luck, over-confidence and incompetence), and Supplies (loss of resources, broken equipment, debt).

Players and NPCs will sometimes also possess a Protection value (for PCs this is tied to a single track). This simply reduces the amount of stress suffered by the amount of protection (this is usually no more than one or two points though).

Obviously, stress tracks have changed - Reputation and Shadow are gone, replaced by Fortune and Echo, and Silver has been changed to the much more survival-orientated Supplies. Protection replaces the extra resistance boxes in Spire - a static armour value ends up being far less confusing than having extra boxes that don't count for fallout.

Now Stress on its own doesn't do anything. It's a pain to get rid of - I'll go into that later, but it generally requires the sacrifice of various resources, or some class abilities to get rid of it. The other way to shed stress is to suffer Fallout. Whenever a PC takes stress, the GM rolls a d12 (note that this, and inflicting stress are pretty much the only time the GM actually rolls). If this is equal or less than the total amount of stress the character has, they suffer Fallout - if this roll is 6 or less, then it's Minor, 7 or more and it's Major (much more consequential). The former is generally easier to deal with, and the effects aren't too dehabilitating; many don't have any real mechanical effect.

Minor Blood Fallout

Minor Echo Fallout

The latter start getting much more serious, causing ongoing stress, or locking away a character's Skills and Domains until they can be cleared, either through spending resources in a safe place, or certain magic.

Major Echo Fallout

Major Mind Fallout

When you take Minor Fallout, it at least clears all stress from the associated resistence track. Major Fallout clears all your stress. Two Minor Fallout effects can be combined (with the agreement of player and GM) into a Major Fallout. Likewise, if the player accepts it, two Major Fallouts can combine to result Critical Fallout - this means that the character will shortly die or otherwise leave the campaign.

Critical Fortune Fallout

Certain locations and NPCs will inflict their own fallout as well, not linked to a specific stress track.

So, in my opinion, Fallout is much more interesting and varied in its effects than Spire. Also, a Heart PC will never die unless the player agrees to it - there's much more explicit narrative power in the hands of the players here; something that we'll see again when we get to advancement. Plus there's huge story potential in many of the fallout effects, and some Minor Fallout explicitly leads to specific Major and Critical Fallout.

So that's it (messily) for the core of the system.

Next: Character Creation Part 1 - Ancestries and Callings

Character Creation - Ancestries and Callings

posted by LazyAngel Original SA post

Heart: The City Beneath
03 - Character Creation - Ancestries and Callings

It's been brought to my attention that I am in fact completely wrong regarding the distribution of Skills and Domains in Spire as opposed to Heart, and I must apologize for that. It still remains that generally, a starting Heart character will tend to have less than a starting Spire character (2 + max of 3 from Minor abilities, as opposed to 4+ from Class and Durance, plus possibly another one from the starting advance), but as the game goes on, Heart characters tend to pick them up just as quickly.

Don't know where I got the bit about Knacks from either - if anything, Knacks in Heart pretty much require double-purchase of a Skill or Domain, or are entirely transitory, which is a lot cleaner than Spire where you tend to end up with a handful of them.

Annnyway, character creation! It's pretty simple;
  1. Pick an Ancestry - are you Drow, Aelfir, Human or Gnoll?
  2. Pick a Calling - the reason you're down here in the first place.
  3. Pick a Class - the tools you'll use to survive (or not).
  4. Choose three Minor Abilities and one Major Ability from your class.
  5. Answer one (or more) of the questions from your Ancestry, and all the questions from your Calling.

I'll cover the first two in this post, as they're pretty simple, although the Callings are a brilliant bit of game design, and I'll tackle Classes over the next few posts as they're a bit more meaty.

On a surface level, Callings sit in the same conceptual space as your Durance as Spire, but they tie in to the advancement system in Heart and are much more a driver of character behaviour, as well as a narrative tool players can use.

Ancestries are just that. Whereas in Spire most PCs would be Drow as a matter of course, Heart broadens the options to allow for Human, Gnoll or even Aelfir as player characters - when you're making your way through a nightmarish semi-sentient hell-dungeon, race and skin colour become decidedly secondary considerations. When you're in a Haven (a slightly-more-safe refuge built around a stable landmark) there might be a bit of prejudice, but that's as likely to be about where you're from as whether you have fur or pointed ears. All ancestries have a choice of three questions the player can answer one of to flesh out the character a bit, as well as a d20 table to generate a couple of trinkets they start with, but no other mechanical effects.

Drow are the same as in Spire - monochromatic elves who blister at the touch of the sun and worship a triple Goddess of the Moon. They're the underclass (and former rulers) of the city above, and are often driven down into the under-city for a multitude of reasons, from escape from the regime above, to pilgrimage to the Temple of the Moon Below.

Humans in Heart/Spire have a reputation for digging up the past, often working as retro-engineers and tomb-robbers. They also invented guns, and, shortly after, the arms trade. So ending up in the semi-permeable reality below the city isn't an entirely unusual fate. Also they're canonically mostly welsh or cornish.

Aelfir, the High Elves are the masked rulers of the City Above, alien with bizarre and baroque customs and tradition. But sometimes they too fall, and by the point they've ended up in the City Below, they've adjusted to no longer being on top of the heap.

Gnolls are the hyena-headed people of the far south; a nation with advanced technology built of their mastery of demonology, that's currently fighting an on-off war with the Aelfir. So in Spire, where their presence is generally forbidden, they tend to gravitate to the under-city.

Obviously although Spire brought up the idea of being a disgraced Aelfir or a human, the emphasis was on playing only Drow and playing within the bounds of that culture.

Callings are where we start to see some mechanical meat to the character. There's five of these, each corresponding to a different reason for a character to find themselves in the City Below. Callings give you four things; a Core Ability, three questions to answer about your character and how the Calling brought them out of the City Above, another random trinket table to flesh out your character and a list of Beats.

Beats, which come in Minor, Major and Zenith forms are the core of advancement in Heart. They're little milestones in your character's story, and advancement is simple; you choose two at the end of each session (and at character creation); if you trigger the circumstances of each beat (usually taking fallout or doing things that get you in trouble), you get a Minor/Major/Zenith advance and check off the beat. Once you've hit a given beat you can't choose it again.

This is so much clearer than Spire's advancement, and gives the player the opportunity to say "next session, can I have the chance of X happening?". Note that Zenith Abilities generally result in the death/retirement of the character so picking a Zenith beat is a signal to the GM to say "I think my character's arc is approaching a logical end". In fact this is one of the better RPG experience/advancement settings I've seen.

Here's the five Callings;

Adventure. You're so jaded that only in the living nightmare of the City Below can you really feel alive. Has the core ability Legendary which lets them remove stress whenever they hit a beat. Minor beats involve taking risky or dramatic actions; taking major fallout for example, getting into trouble with the authorities or having things named after you. Or kicking someone off a tall building. Major beats are more conventional heroism; slaying a might beast, saving a Haven, hiring a bard to sign of your exploits. There's two Zenith beats, either lead a Haven to prosperity, or reach Tier 4 of the Heart (more on that when we get to delving, but that's entering the Heart itself).

Enlightenment. They all said you were mad! You'll prove them wrong! You're on a quest to prove that something that other have told you was impossible, isn't. Core ability is Unorthodox Methods - once a session automatically succeed with a 6 (succeed but take stress). Minor beats revolve around the pursuit of knowledge despite the risks (or the destruction of knowledge that contradicts your theories). Major beats involve sacrifice - either personal, or of others - whilst pursuing your theories.

For your Zenith beat;

Forced. You don't want to be down here, but you've not been given a choice.

Minor beats revolve around either your relationship with your masters, how their orders make your life harder, and forging a life outside of their control. Major beats involve either directly fighting back against the powers controlling you, or carrying out their orders with significant consequences. The Zenith beat is simple; either escape your master's control, or enact your bloody revenge.

Heartsong. You've heard the sweet song of the heart and are now drawn towards its fleshy red embrace. Your core ability is In the Blood - you gain Echo protection, and once a situation (i.e. a discrete scene), you can allocate stress to Echo instead of another resistance. Minor beats involve sacrifice, and taking the Heart into your body by eating things it creates, or graft parts of the flora and fauna of the City Below onto yourself, as well as seeking to strengthen your connection with the Heart itself. Major beats go further, tearing down Havens, or spreading your visions. And in the end you'll either become one with the Heart, or tear its connection to you from your body, severing the link.

Penitant. You caused harm to your organisation through either malice or incompetance, and now seek to make amends by delving into the City Below.

Minor beats for the Penitant involve making penance for your crimes, and punishing others for their transgressions as well as performing acts to re-establish your bonds with your order or organisation. Major beats either escalate these stakes, or add ambuguity - further crimes you seek to hide from your order. Finally, for your Zenith beat you either find forgiveness from your order, or you betray them, intentionally this time.

So quite a mix there; generally players should have an idea of what Zenith beat they're ultimately working towards after a few sessions of play. This does also put a bit of a time limit on a campaign of Heart - it's not intended to run past around a dozen sessions or so before all the characters have been retired one way or another, but this is hardly a flaw - it lets the game focus on the narrative of the group, rather than serving as an open-ended sandbox.

Next: Character Creation Part 2 - Equipment, Resources and our first class; The Cleaver