Spire and Black Magic and Strata by Night10194
Yes, I know someone already did thisOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 1: Yes, I know someone already did this
Spire was already reviewed, yes. I would never have heard of the game without that review, and wouldn't have bought it without that, either. But I feel like writing about Spire, and I've got the expansion book so I can add something extra to this in addition to retreading ground that Lazyangel already trod (quite well). Plus, I think I can bring something to the table in writing up a bit on Spire: I don't usually play or run games like Spire. I am normally a very traditional GM and player. I tend to play games with pretty conventional structure and rulesets. I don't really play a lot of heavy narrative games. Spire is a narrative game (though it has a few more standard RPG-ish conventions than, say, Powered By The Apocalypse style games) about drow rebels rising against the high elves (aelfir) who have conquered their fantasy mega-city. I think a sort of outsider's perspective on what it's like to adapt to a more narrative game and how well Spire's rules and book help a GM and group to do that has a little value.
Plus I just want to talk about how the book constructs its setting and characters, because it does a fantastic job of it and really deserves recognition for it. Grant Hewitt and Christopher Taylor did an excellent job of giving the exact right amount of detail; everywhere you go in the book, there's an exciting plot hook or an evocative idea, but all of them are left just blank enough for you to do your own thing with them. I talk a lot about how RPG fluff writing is about delivering writing prompts to the reader; Spire does this in spades. This book has a very, very high density of passages where you come away going 'I want to write about that' or 'I want to play as that'. The art adds a lot to this, too; there's a very consistent and sinister aesthetic to the art in Spire that really gives you a good feeling of how the city looks, while leaving enough open to your imagination.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first thing Spire does right is its portrayal of the drow, the principle characters you'll be playing as. Drow are one of the most embarrassing things in D&D, full of crazy racist implications and weird dominatrix fetishization. The drow in Spire are an excellent re-contextualization of the concept. For one, they're not evil. Nobody is just 'evil' in Spire, that's part of the point. They're not even sinister, really. They do a lot of stuff we might find weird or creepy, especially if you're an arachnaphobe, but it all has reasonable explanations. You see, Spire's drow are burned by the sun thanks to an ancient curse (no-one knows where the curse came from, the high elves say they did it to the drow ages ago but there's evidence the drow and high elves were never the same species). They also don't have live birth like normal mammals. Instead, they lay eggs, which are then tended to and carefully fed transfused blood by a priesthood of part-spider Midwives devoted to a spider goddess that helped the drow have children. They're a heavily communal and family-based people, living in dark places and farming mushrooms and insects, and worship a triune Goddess called the Damnou in her three aspects. They're a little weird to a human, but the drow are just another people; they're not super sinister, nor are they written as perfect wonderful saints. They're just people, like everyone else in the setting.
Plus, this is a setting that pulls off 'spider-blooded mutant priestess who has horrific transformation magic' as a holy defender whose commandments drive her to defend the defenseless and who spends as much time healing people and taking care of babies as ripping people apart with swarms of magic spiders. The weird spider priestess Midwives are the game's equivalent of a Paladin in most fantasy settings, and they rule. Basically every PC class does. We'll get to why.
They're also brutally oppressed (at least, here in the Spire) by the aelfir, their supposed cousins from the north. Spire itself is a massive super-city founded by who knows what long ago. As an example of what I love about the writing for this game, they give a ton of possibilities for what Spire is: Is it a musical instrument forged by a God and the thrum of life in the city is the song it's playing? Is it a tendril of some ancient being from beyond that got cut off and stuck here? Is it the beacon that brought the Gods to the world, a great signal-fire of life and activity? Or is it just a really big building? I love that last option being included among all the weird shit. It used to be the capital of a powerful drow nation until it was conquered by the aelfir 200 years ago. Aelfir are dicks, basically. They're extremely powerful at magic, their society is weirdly distant and strange, and they're obsessed with art. To the point that they completely despise nature. Everything in the world needs a high elf in it, you see, and a high elf can improve anything. That tree over there? Needs to be bound with magical chains so it'll grow in exactly the direction the aelfir artist wants it to. Because it's better now, because an aelfir did something to it.
Oh, and they all wear masks all the time, to make it easy to disguise yourself as one and go among them and do spy stuff. They also don't actually know their own mask etiquette, but none of them will admit it, so they keep writing dozens of books about what kinds of masks are appropriate for what things and then try to get by on panache and presentation. Again, completely perfect for a game about shadowy resistance figures.
Because that's what you do in Spire. You're drow, the aelfir rule your country and force a minimum of 4 years of slavery on every drow for the 'privilege' of living on their sufferance, and you have decided this is bullshit. By default, you are assumed to be members of a radical religious sect devoted to Lombre, one of the aspects of the Damnou goddess, who is often depicted as the goddess of Revenge. You are meant to be Ministers of Our Hidden Mistress, hidden rebels who work against the aelfir in a seemingly impossible struggle to free the Spire. I don't actually find the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress very important, and actually kind of dislike them as the assumed framing; something about them feels off to me. I think it's the way the book continually talks about how much they'll sell you out in a heartbeat and how they always seem to have the resources to fuck over a PC, but not to actually give you any backup. I'm also just not that fond of declaring all PCs are directly linked to one of the religions. I understand the need for an elevator pitch/immediate thing that links the party together; this apparently started as a Dark Heresy hack so having an Inquisition probably wasn't a stretch. I just find it works fine to say 'You are people who are part of the Resistance or will shortly find themselves thus; what do you hope for and what pushed you?' instead of always using the Ministry. Being rebels is enough.
Another fun thing about Spire right off the bat: It is not a static fantasy setting. At all. For one, as soon as the gun was invented, everyone all over the world recognized immediately they wanted guns, so even though you'll see magic crossbows or longbows around the Spire and people often carry swords and knives, you can also find repeating rifles and revolvers. Humans invented guns, guns took off. Same with other tech. Magic is also absolutely everywhere in the Spire, so common that it takes the place of or supplements technological development. No-one lives for thousands of years, either; the aelfir wish they did, but most of the time they can manage 200. Drow live about 120 years. Elves are unusual in that they don't age past adulthood and just die when they die, but they don't live millennia like in most fantasy settings. Humans are human. Gnolls are the other major species and we'll get to them in a bit. Not having tons of ancient immortals around is a conscious choice and helps keep the setting feeling like it can change and move forward more readily. There's also lots of nice implied stuff about the rest of the world, but the book focuses heavily on the Spire itself, because the entire game is intended to take place there. It's certainly big enough to manage it.
Next Time: The Rules Can Be Explained In Five Minutes
The Rules Are SimpleOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 2: The Rules Are Simple
Spire has very efficient and economical rules. You have Domains and Skills. These cover the general places and contexts you're comfortable operating, and the ways you're comfortable operating. You either have a Domain or Skill or you don't; no gradations of power, no charts, no tables. If something is at stake, you and the GM decide what you're rolling, and the GM assigns a difficulty. You roll 1d10 base, 2d10 if you have a Skill or Domain that applies, 3d10 if you have a Skill and a Domain, and +d10 if you have what's called Mastery, which is usually a situational bonus or something from one of your class abilities or something from a narrow specialization in a Skill or Domain called a Knack. You get a Knack if you earn a Skill or Domain you already have. You lower your dice by d10 per point of Difficulty of the check (checks are never more than Difficulty 2, and that should be rare). You then check highest showing die; if you got an 8 or better, you succeed at no cost. If you got a 6-7, you succeed but take some Stress (damage, we'll get into it). If you get a 2-5, you fail and take Stress. If you get a 1, you take doubled Stress. The GM assigns how much Stress is at risk if you succeed with cost or fail. A 10 showing is also a critical success in combat and inflicts extra Stress on enemies per 10 you had showing.
Now this sounds kind of punishing, but remember: You actually have good odds of rolling 8+ as long as you're rolling more than one die, and even if you're only rolling 1, you still have 50% odds to succeed in some capacity. Now, if you have less die than the Difficulty of a check, that's when things go bad: you shift the table results instead. So if you had 1 die on an action that was Difficulty 1, suddenly, an 8-9 is Success with Cost and only a 10 is Success. While a 1-5 is Double Stress. You generally really don't want to do stuff with a Difficulty rating unless you've got a favorable situation.
Stress is allocated across several Resistances; these are your HP bars, so to speak. They're Blood (getting stabbed), Mind (getting stressed and freaked out), Silver (getting robbed), Shadow (getting spotted), and Reputation (getting ruined). Characters have points of Resistance in these categories, mostly based on their character class and any bonuses they get from their character advances, plus a little from their Durance. Your Durance is a major pick during character creation, usually giving you a Skill or Domain and +2 to one of your Resistances or just giving you two Skills or Domains. Resistance represents your resilience in that area; until you're out of Resistance, you don't start stacking actual Stress that can cause tangible problems. So if Hekate the Midwife has 5 Blood Resistance and gets shot with a revolver that does d6 Stress, and it rolls a 6, she fills up 5 of the Blood slots and only takes 1 actual Stress. If she got knifed for d3 after that, she then marks all that extra d3 as Stress and then checks to see if something bad happened physically. At the same time, if she took that same bullet and then fucked up a spell and took d6 Stress to Mind, she might still have some Mind Resistance left to stop it with. But any spillover just goes to her general Stress pool and checks for Fallout for Mind.
Alternately, you can make every Resistance its own stress pool; this is mentioned in a sidebar as a way to make the game less lethal and to make lesser fallout more common and more spread out. I tend to prefer this style, but I've always been a 'soft' GM. Also, normally, the GM is supposed to keep your Stress total secret but I find this just wastes everyone's time so I'm fine telling people how freaked out or hurt their PC is mechanically.
Once you have some Stress, you check for Fallout. Roll a d10. If the number rolled is under your Stress total, you take Fallout. 2-4 Stress, the Fallout is Minor. You start bleeding, you have to pawn something you wish you didn't, someone asks you where you've been going nights, etc. You also drop 3 Stress from suffering the Fallout; that intangible Stress just became a serious issue in the story, so it's not really Stress anymore, it's a problem now. 5-8 Stress, you suffer Moderate Fallout; broken arm, arrested by the cops but not necessarily for something lethal, picked up a tail, got publicly humiliated, etc. Drop 5 Stress but now you've got real issues. 9+ Stress? Severe Fallout. You're dying and have to choose between one last heroic action or losing something dear to cling to life. You're known by the cops and they start taking your friends and family in for questioning, or shooting known associates in the back of the head. You've been forced to turn traitor on the resistance. That kind of stuff.
Now, one of my issues with Fallout is specifically with Mind Fallout. The others all have lots of 'you can continue the story as your PC, but man are you in a bad situation and you might consider fleeing the city or choosing to go down doing something heroic' implications on their Severe stress. Mind can actively make you turn on the party, has lots of much longer term effects than other types of Fallout, and some of Mind's Severe Fallout will forcibly retire your PC eventually. None of the others do that. Fallout is a good system in and of itself, but I'm not fond of the implementation of Mind.
You also have things called Bonds: These are your links to larger organizations or friendly NPCs (or PCs). Bonds can roll to do stuff for you, depending on their power level (Individual, Street, or City-level), their purview, what they know how to do, etc. Usually with 1-3 dice. The Bond's level really only has narrative effects; an Individual might be able to look the other way and let you sneak into someplace, or get you a gun on the down-low, while a City level bond with a huge crime syndicate might be able to arm an entire uprising. That kind of thing. Bonds get their own Stress, separate from you, and their Fallout can get you spotted, get you in trouble, or get them shot. Also, once per situation (encounter), you can declare you act with Mastery on a roll (for +d10) if it would help out someone you have a Bond with. Having friends is very important.
Basically everything in the game resolves from these fairly simple rules. One of the big bits of Spire: The GM never rolls checks for other characters. You, the Player, are the only one who ever rolls tests. The fiction gets built around your actions and your results; a particularly formidable NPC might make things high Difficulty when acting against them, but they don't have big stat blocks or anything and the only thing the GM ever rolls for is Stress/Fallout. Fights are a little more detailed; you do damage based on your weapons and abilities and try to knock an enemy's Resistance down to 0 by inflicting Stress of your own. But other than that, the consequences of a roll are entirely narrative aside from any Stress they inflict on PCs. Everything else from here is in the details of what a class can do and what the GM and players write collaboratively as coming from the results of their actions.
Now, the prior review already did a solid writeup of all the Core Book classes and the Black Magic expansion classes like the Blood Witch, so instead I'll just be doing a summary of the two new classes in the Strata expansion. But I'd also like to talk a bit about why class design in Spire is so appealing; almost every class has a high degree of 'Man, I want to play this' built into it as well as a great sense of narrative escalation in their Low, Medium, and High advances.
Next Time: Classes In Spire
Class StruggleOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 3: Class Struggle
Games live or die on their hook. If you need fifty pages of dense lore to have any idea what you're doing in a game or what kinds of characters you actually play as, something is wrong. Spire is a very rich setting, but it gets you right off the bat with simple rules, a simple but compelling pitch (drow revolutionaries is definitely a new one for a fantasy setting), and then immediately hits you with the character classes. If you don't find something in Spire's classes that excites you, it A: Isn't the game for you and B: I'd be very surprised, because their presentation and concepts are very well done.
One of the big things that makes Spire's classes and character creation pop is that everything you get matters, a lot. Similarly, it is impossible to build a 'bad' character. Whatever it is you wanted to take, it's going to be viable, because everyone has a good core of cool stuff they can do and a solid core of competency from their Durance bonuses, starting career stuff, and the two character advances you start off with. Anything you choose is basically a bonus; you don't get any penalties for things you choose during character creation.
Remember, there are only 9 Skills and 9 Domains. Any Skill or Domain you get is a big deal! Similar for Resistance, as +2 to a Resistance stat is similar to what you usually get in a Resistance your class is 'good' at from your class. So your Durance bonus is big, but you're free to be fluffy, since everything is useful. You don't have to worry about a pick being good or bad. Say you want to play a Midwife who spent her early life in the trenches in a far off war; you get Fight from being a Midwife and from having been a soldier, which means you get to pick a specialization within fighting where you act with Mastery all the time. So you're hardly penalized for taking two things that give you the same thing. Alternately, your Durance could open up whole new abilities your class normally can't get at. A Knight of the North Docks normally doesn't learn much about academics or magic, so one that spent their Durance as an occultist or academic suddenly has some very new options open to them. Since you don't need to keep investing numerically in Skills and Domains, just having one has enough value to make them significant.
If you want detail on all the Classes, the prior review summarizes them very, very well. What I'd like to talk about is why they're so appealing. They are not generic. There's no 'Fighter' or 'Thief'. You're something specific and exciting within the setting; an Idol is a big deal, part popular artist and part occultist. A Knight of the North Docks is a lovable mobster-knight who might some day accidentally become a real legend. A Midwife is a spider-blooded priestess who mixes healing and ripping people apart with magical spider powers if they fuck with the eggs. Masked are masters of masks and espionage, who eventually develop powerful magical connections with the idea of a mask. Etc. All of them have a solid definition and hook. But they also aren't straitjackets; there's space to learn all kinds of things in a class. This is because many of your Advances will get you new Skills or Domains or Resistances and something extra. Everyone has a core of things anyone in that class can do, but then you have some pretty wide leeway in adding on to it.
Especially when you add in all the Extra Advance schemes you can earn access to. There are all sorts, from 'noir detective' to 'soldier' to 'horrifying cannibal drow' to 'Revolver Ocelot'. And that's on top of how your base class was already stuff like 'daring revolutionary' or 'public transit wizard'.
Another important thing about the classes is the art and presentation. Again, the other review has all the class pictures, but they have a very strong 'I want to play that!' factor to them. The grinning Knight with a gap-toothed smile and a huge club. The somber and mysterious Midwife. The heroic Firebrand posing with his flag in front of a giant wanted poster of himself. They all look like someone who is exciting and interesting to be.
Another thing I appreciate in Spire: Spire is a very high magic setting. Most characters have some degree of access to magic, or contact with magic or religion. But even characters who have less don't have any less agency for having less. The Knight, for instance, doesn't get into magic stuff as part of their class until they're at their High Advances and undertaking holy quests and divine crusades. But even before then, they get the same sorts of agency as anyone else; lots of classes have a 'ask the GM a question' style ability that can be fluffed as divination or just solid intuition, for instance. Magic is a major part of the setting and its weirdness, but it never overwhelms the plot. It's a means, not an end, most of the time. So for instance, when the Midwife asks the GM 'what does this NPC want to protect', it might be holy magic that connects her to the web of life or she might just have a good eye for what people care about. The Knight might not have any magic early on (unless he's got a Domain that gives it to him), but that doesn't stop him having a similar ability where he can ask the GM 'Who do I want to pick a fight with in this scene to make a distraction?'.
The other important thing in class design is that the classes ramp up. You start out with 'low' Advances, and gain more as you make small changes to the setting. These are things like 'I can perfectly sense the location of everyone around me if I hold still, also I gain the Pursue skill and can do parkour chases' or 'I always have a couple old cigarettes and a little liquor left because a tiny god lives in my flask and tobacco pouch' or 'I'm so good at faking my way through on confidence and bullshit that I actually learn to do things for a minute'. You know, little, minor tricks. Then you gain Medium advances, like 'summon angry mob' or 'so incredibly beautiful that I can stab people better than a mighty warrior just by my sheer style' or 'someone literally loses the ability to think or speak about a specific concept for awhile' or 'throw some money off a bridge and now an entire business finds itself friendly to me'. Then finally, when you really change the setting, you go into High Advances. Like 'become the inheritor Fisher-King of the North Docks' or 'Turn into a divine avatar of an angry spider goddess' or 'my god-bound knife doesn't check for Stress anymore, it just kills anyone I wound with it' or 'when about to be killed, turn into an idea of revolution and then re-coalesce into yourself after people have kept it in their hearts and need you again'.
Advances don't fuck around. The only issue with Advances is that the whole 'gain them when you change the setting' thing can be a little wishy-washy. Still, by the time you have a High Advance, you both have something amazingly cool you can do and probably a big climax rushing forth that you can use it on. Every Advance in Spire is exciting. Every single one gives you cool stuff you can do. Add that to a solid core, and you're in business with respect to making the characters you want to play.
Next Time: A Man With A Gun Comes Through The Door
Drow Fanfiction WizardOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 4: Drow Fanfiction Wizard
I admit, besides a general desire to talk about Spire because it's rad, this class is one of the reasons I wanted to write this up because it is just delightful. The Inksmith is introduced in Strata, Spire's first full length expansion book. The Inksmith is a mixture of an amateur detective, a pulp author, a sensationalist journalist, and a dark wizard. It's Spire, you don't do many jobs without potentially enhancing them with dark wizardry. Instead of channeling the power of a dread and beautiful spider queen or summoning the might of a failed public transit system, Inksmiths work the magic of pulp fiction. They're out there researching for their true to life crime dramas, which they know are true to life, because they use magic to make sure life works the way the story says it's supposed to.
They're not natural fighters; their standard abilities make them good at Compelling people and Investigating things and they work best in Low Society and with their Occult magic. They start off with individual bonds to two people/organizations in the Spire that they've used to help them do their research, one of which must be criminal. They also have a Bond with another PC, who they wrote a story about. Was it a good story? Did your buddy like it or are they ashamed of it? Decide as you will! They're good at Reputation (+2) and decent at Shadow (+1) but generally have sort of poor Resistance slots. They are, at core, very good at getting people to do stupid and reckless things that would make a good story: Once per session, they can declare an NPC does what they most want to do regardless of any consequences. Works best if you have some idea of what they wanted before you pull that trigger. They're also great at noticing plot hooks: They can ask the GM what's out of place or unusual once per scene.
They also automatically fix some stress whenever they do something really reckless, either because it would be cool to write about or because it will get them the scoop they need. I'll just be giving you a 'best of' of what they can do.
Their Low abilities make them out to be an earnest, annoying, and extremely lucky person, which is wonderful. They can lie to people so well that they gain them as Bonds (and get Deceive at the same time!) They can make contacts by pandering with their writing. They can have the power to summon drugs and resist any and all negative effects of intoxicants or sleep deprivation on sheer enthusiasm. They can summon a man with a gun. It could be anyone of any gender, mind you. It's just named for the literary trope (the book is clear on this). If this spell succeeds, they summon forth a coincidence that will put someone with a loaded firearm onto the scene immediately. They have no control over who that person is, what they intend to do with the firearm, what kind of firearm it is, but person with gun just happens. Similarly, they can summon a coincidental lucky break; the guard who knows something is drunk, or has a crush on your cousin, or the bar's bulletproofed, or there's a gun in the glove box. 'Once per session, you can declare something is present in the world if it would be there in a schlocky story.'
At Medium levels, they can make sure the Man With A Gun is on their side. They can turn their fists into d6 Brutal (roll damage twice, take best; for reference this makes their fists a sawed off shotgun, effectively) while temporarily giving themselves Fight as they unlock secret and hidden martial arts prowess, which allows them to perfectly disable foes with those brutal fists without seriously hurting anyone. After all, the good guy just knocks people out and they get up with a headache later! They can force conflict to a climax, making someone temporarily do (and take) double Stress in any fight or serious confrontation for a day. They can ship two people into being temporarily infatuated with one another, at which point it will wear off if the two weren't actually compatible but might cause a lasting relationship.
Finally, their best High Advance is one where they can turn Fallout on its head. Everyone knows the hero doesn't get arrested unless it's to find out the bad guys' plans and they had an escape route ready the whole time. When they (or an ally) would suffer a Shadow, Rep, or Silver Fallout, they can turn it around once per session. You go in debt to the mob, but they turn out to be stand up guys and join the resistance after you impress them! You get caught by a sinister aelfir investigator, but while escaping from prison you discover his secret project and have a chance to blow it up! Your reputation gets shot, but then the cops go after the person who claimed credit for all your deeds and you're left with a clean slate! It's a wonderful capstone to a completely ridiculous class. Plus, they serve as a fun bit of comic relief in a generally pretty vicious setting. A plucky, ridiculous, lucky reporter/writer who just keeps coming out ahead as if their own life was pure hackery? Yes. Put that in the sinister elf conspiracy game. They can hang out with the mobster-knight.
By contrast, I don't especially care for the second class introduced in Spire. The Shadow Agent kind of steps on the Masked class's toes, and doesn't really break any new ground. They also introduce an entire new style of Fallout and Stress, and I have pretty mixed feelings about that, while being very mechanically complex by this game's standards. See, the Masked is already a shadowy espionage expert who plays with questions of identity and hidden agendas. The Shadow Agent is...a shadowy espionage expert who plays with questions of identity and hidden agendas, but it comes via the Goddess of Vengeance, Lombre, taking a piece of their identity and sense of self away when they became a Minister of Our Hidden Mistress. Their Cover Identities are people they can easily pretend to be, so much so that they feel like they are that person. They don't start with Domains; they get those from their two starting Covers. They also make Covers linked to their Bonds, at the risk of breaking those Bonds. They can, with enough work, turn themselves into humans and aelfir if it's part of a cover. They can only ever have 4 Covers at a time.
They naturally gain abilities like 'act with Mastery whenever you betray someone' or 'Go Loud and burn a Cover to fight exceptionally well against the people who believed it right before it crumbled'. At Medium levels they can immediately steal someone's rough identity as they slit their throat; perfectly imitating a dead soldier's credentials and equipment and slipping into their role, that sort of thing. Also note: For every Cover you have, you have its associated Domain as long as it stays intact, no matter how you got it; just knowing how to slip into being a noble or a merchant gets you High Society or Commerce, etc. They can ritually kill the version of themself that inhabited a Cover to immediately clear all Fallout and Stress they suffered while wearing it, but lose the Cover. They can halve all damage from Occult magic because their identity isn't really theirs. As you might notice, the whole "Cover" thing is their main move at all times.
Naturally, at High they can split themselves into two (themselves, and a Cover version of themselves) who can both act independently. They can also just slit someone's throat and perfectly take their place, to the point that no-one will even notice the original is dead and gone. That sort of thing.
They also introduce an entire subsystem for suffering fallout to their Cover instead of themselves; any time they'd suffer Fallout while in Cover the GM can decide they have a chance of blowing that Cover instead. Minor and Moderate Fallout are just normal mistaken identity, discovery, suspicion, etc. Severe Cover Fallout will result in either one of your Covers becoming your primary identity and the whole shapeshifting spy thing becoming a side-self that you have to shift into as if it was a Cover identity, locking off all your advances without shifting who you are until you find a way to cure yourself. Alternately, when you sleep one of your identities that's sick of being left on the shelf takes your body for joyrides and gets up to stuff, which is pretty hard to cure since you either have to find a way to assassinate yourself ritually while asleep without actually killing yourself, or you need to just accept that Lombre can be a dick sometimes and this is your life now.
I don't really like introducing a whole separate Fallout system and the whole Cover thing is a little over-complex. The Masked does their job just fine without needing as many extra subsystems, so I'd say the Shadow Agent is something of a miss for me. But dang, the Inksmith is real good.
Next Time: Aelfir
Better With ElvesOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 5: Better With Elves
So since a prior review covered a general outline of Spire very well, I'd like to focus on the bits that landed or didn't land for me. For the most part, the stuff that didn't land is much more a matter of personal taste; I feel like the game's material can get a little too excited about all the magic cosmic horrors and lose a bit of the focus on revolution, but that's taste and it's easy enough to rewrite. It was easy enough to rewrite because Spire does a really good job of being loose enough, but defined enough; that's a hard balance to hit in an RPG. For example: You know there's technological progress and things don't stay the same forever in Spire's world. How much you want to focus on that, how fast it moves, how industrialized the world is, all of that is easy to change up depending on what you want to focus on. For instance, I like the idea of the war Spire is fighting off in the south being a brutal trench war that's raising food prices and dragging young elves off by the thousands to die for a cause they don't care about (the enrichment of the aelfir), creating material conditions for a revolution. The material on the war in the south and the exact prosecution of it is loose enough that I can do that easily, but there's still enough evocative stuff on what's going on down there to get you going.
Which is also one of the reasons the various 'this isn't quite to my taste' bits don't bother me much; they're intentionally easy to shift around and it's easy to change up what you focus on with how the setting is written. You want drow noir? It's easy. You want steampunk that remembers the punk part? Easy. Crazy cosmic horror shit? The game is really excited about crazy cosmic horror shit so that's probably the easiest game of all to do.
Also, when the game has to nail a foundational setting element like the aelfir, it does it really well. The aelfir are an amazingly well done antagonist for a game about shadowy revolution, and so I'd like to take some time to look at why they work, how they get players excited for fighting them, how they still keep to the theme of 'everyone you deal with is or was a person', and why they're an excellent balancing act between supremely powerful but surprisingly vulnerable.
The aelfir come from far to the north. They not only love the cold, there are indications they can't actually maintain their stability and sanity if they overheat; there's a story about an aelfir diplomat sent to a hot land to negotiate a treaty who overheated to the point that she was lashing out violently at everything she could until her own bodyguards put her to death. It's not as dramatic as drow and sunlight, but aelfir who can't cool off will go nuts. They have immensely powerful magic, and united their people around the worship of a new pantheon of solar deities about 400 years ago, shunning and discarding their old Gods to worship Father Summer, Mother Winter, Sister Spring, and Brother Harvest. They conquered Destera (the land Spire sticks out of) and the Spire 200 years ago, seizing it from its original drow rulers. Ever since, they've moved in, built a magical winter wonderland on the top, and begun ruthlessly and brutally exploiting the drow population to enrich themselves.
The aelfir commandments are: Always wear a mask in public, and the more it conceals, the better. Pay respects to the Solar Pantheon, not the weak Old Gods who were helpless before them. Take regular ice baths to cool the blood and ease the mind. Never lower yourself before a member of another race and sully your majesty. Make beautiful things and improve them; nature is made better by an aelfir.
The last two are obviously the most important, but we'll be getting to the first, too. The aelfir are a culture completely obsessed with dominance and artistry. They despise the natural world; a tree is just something created at random, there's no beauty or artistry in something you just found growing out of the ground. These are people who refer to gardening as 'a good day's subjugation' because an aelfir garden is focused on contraptions and devices to force the plants to grow in the directions and paths the aelfir want them to. Almost every aelfir is obsessed with being an artist, because their society tells them to think about everything in terms of art. At the same time, most aelfir are hacks. They're a people obsessed with beauty, but most of them have no real sense of aesthetics and just go for shock value or extravagance or a long-winded explanation of why whatever they did is secretly really deep if you just got it. Their entire regime is also founded on ethnonationalist racial supremacy, so there's that, too. Their entire culture is shockingly, completely racist, to the point that rejecting racism has become an aesthetic movement among some radical young aelfir simply because it is the most novel artistic statement they can think of (Strata has a ton of good material on the aelfir like that).
They are also completely miserable. For the most part, aelfir don't really do the concept of 'friendship'. They live heavily atomized lives, where the individual is mostly without deep relationships and heavily isolated even though they spend most of their time around others. The mask-wearing tradition is a big symbol of this. Aelfir always wear masks, though they keep a 'true mask' on their person that represents what they think of as their actual face. The mask is only removed in private worship of the Gods. Masks are such an important part of their identity that they'll often speak to the mask instead of the person wearing it. They are deeply afraid of actually showing any degree of emotional vulnerability outside of theatrics. Their culture is so full of face-saving dances and oblique insults that most aelfir have no idea where they stand, but most of them just 'assume they're above average and it all mostly works out' (again, Strata's sections on High Society are wonderful). Every single aelfir is expected to act like a high lord, no-one really says anything directly, all of them are constantly trying to outdo one another with conspicuous consumption and 'radical' displays of hackery and art, and in the end every single one of them is terrified that there's some important rule they're forgetting when the fact is none of them actually know the 'rules' of their social mores or etiquette and they're all making it up as they go along.
Also, 10% of the most powerful aelfir in the Spire are actually humans or drow who can 'pass' with a mask on. Because it's really goddamn easy to infiltrate a society where making it up as you go but doing it with confidence can get you very far. This is an espionage-focused setting where the main enemy always wears masks. Similarly, the aelfir are in a position of strength that has convinced them no-one is ever going to be able to really rise against them. To the point that some aelfir fund resistance movements entirely as an art piece, expecting they can never get anywhere anyway. They control the flow of capital, they're extremely rich, they have huge mercenary armies of humans (and drow colonial troops/police), they have tremendously powerful magic, and they have an ideology that tells them no-one else can ever truly be a threat to their betters.
In short, the aelfir are powerful, in control, dangerous, and much of their casual cruelty stems from knowing they can get away with it. The Durance placed on drow can see a PC used for all sorts of tasks before they became a PC, up to and including being a trained assassin or having been kept as a 'pet' because they were considered an art object. Who their master then lets loose after the required 4 years of service. Same for their colonial troops. And many of their police. Think about that; their beloved tradition intended to remind drow of their place under the aelfir's boots (the Durance is your price for being 'permitted' to still live in Spire) creates large numbers of people who know the affairs of their old lords, may have military or police training, and who may have been left with a lot of grievances against their old masters. And it happens to everyone! Every drow has to do this from 16-20, at least, and the prison-industrial complex mostly assigns people to do more Durance. Many aelfir who keep a drow 'pet' genuinely think they're being very kind to the drow, letting them be near an aelfir all the time, and don't realize that their handmaiden/manservant may well be plotting how to get them killed.
Oh, yes, a major part of their art is that anything and everything should have an aelfir in it. You see, aelfir are the best thing that exists, the most perfect being. So a landscape is boring, but you put an elf in a landscape, and now it's art.
The aelfir are an excellent mixture of fantastical elements with a pretty realistic portrayal of the social structures of colonialism and empire. That's the whole reason they work so well. At the same time, they have real vulnerabilities; that youth movement against racism (on the grounds of it being the most out-there and dadiast idea they could conceive) has the potential to be converted against them. The masks and dance of indirect socialization, the constant competition to be the most elfy elf and the most extravagant, and their sort of disorganized disinterest in day to day governance all give you real routes to start breaking down doors and maybe making progress on defeating the regime, as does their extensive reliance on collaborators and mercenaries that might be made into double agents or convinced to back down. At the same time, the Paladins can always show up. The Paladins are aelfir who aren't a joke, at all. They're the heavily armed and armored elf SWAT teams that come down on you if you really fuck up. They're death cultists, devoted to Brother Harvest, and equipped with a mixture of magical golden plate armor and repeating rifles/shotguns. And sun-based flashbangs, which is very bad for drow. They're there to remind you that as silly as the lords and ladies can seem, they've got some real teeth to them.
Also, I really do like how the game handles there being 'good' aelfir. There are genuinely decent aelfir and people who reject the culture of exploitation and racism they were brought up in. They're very rare, because most people are strongly moved by the constant bombardment of racist propaganda and other large social forces that act on them. It's more likely you meet an aelfir who is willing to be kind within the system they live in, without being willing to take the step of actually opposing the system, since they as a demographic benefit immensely socially and economically from how things are right now. Or an aelfir who just thinks it's exciting to play at revolution. But those other two can still fund you, or help you, and maybe through a mixture of blackmail and persuasion, you might be able to convince them to actually join you. If not, take their money and run.
Similarly, while Spire wants you to ask yourself questions about 'is what we're doing right now the right thing to do', it never denies that rebellion against this oppressive system is moral. You are right to want to fight the aelfir and free yourself from being treated as a resource to be exploited. You might question what lengths you can or should go to for that, but the fundamental urge to rebellion is built into the story and there's no hand-wringing about 'what if the system is actually okay'. The cop you shot was still a person; no-one in Spire is really denied personhood or treated as just a thing to be shot in the head. But the forces driving you to shoot that cop are very real and there's no getting around the fact that this is going to involve violence. Because the system bearing down on you is already violence.
And so, by having a solid core antagonist, Spire immediately makes its primary conflict really interesting, while also writing in plenty of cracks in their power that can let you make progress. The whole thing wouldn't be nearly as compelling without the aelfir in it, which they'd probably be happy to hear about. Also, they still have enough flex room that you can easily make them your own thing; for instance, I really like having them parroting a lot of 19th century Colonialist thought about 'civilizing' as part of their 'we are made to improve the world and it will be better when an aelfir is done with it' ideology. But the core concept for them is solid, and as the game's own authors say, having a good villain is one of the most important steps in having a compelling story. Spire has a great one, and that starts it off right.
Next Time: The Drow
I am an elf and I'm digging a hole.Original SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 6: I am an elf and I'm digging a hole.
The drow are just as well done as the aelfir, which is important, since you only play as drow. A few classes could easily be a human if you really wanted, but in general the game sticks completely to 'you are drow'. Drow in normal D&D settings are a terrible, embarrassing mess that draws on some really racist tropes for their origins. Here? The whole 'curse of Ham' style story about the aelfir cursing the wicked drow with their condition is mostly made up by the aelfir (most likely). No-one really knows what caused the drow to be burned by sunlight, or why they lay eggs and need magical spiders to help them tend them. There are plenty of theories, but the constant wars and the attempts by the aelfir to eliminate traditional drow culture hide the truth (so you can conveniently decide on it yourself). What's important is that the eggs need to be tended to carefully, and they need to be regularly fed with blood. The need to feed eggs means multiple people in a community will volunteer to donate and shift the burden of feeding; drow need to be very communal to successfully hatch their children, which extends to making them a fairly collective people in general.
Similarly, drow can't actually see in the dark. They have decent night-sight, but they need a little light. The drow are shaped by their underground lifestyle, even as many of them live in covered cities and artificial constructions far from the traditional mountain homes and habitable cave networks these days. Light and sound give you away to predators deep in the dark, but you need them to communicate and to see where you're going; so the drow prize the idea of being cautious and vigilant. They're physically very drab; the book describes them as 'monochrome people', meaning a drow can be black, grey, or pure white. Same for their hair. No word on if they can have soft lavender eyes.
Traditional drow society prizes six virtues above all else, with two symbolized by each of the aspects of their triune Goddess, the Damnou. Community, Tenacity, Vigilance, Grace, Sagacity, and Fury. Community doesn't just apply to one's own family and community; hospitality to any in need is a virtue in drow society (and like a lot of virtues, is hardly universally followed). Tenacity tells you to endure no matter what conspires against you; drow aren't supposed to just give up. Vigilance is about keeping an eye out and keeping informed. Grace is the most unusual of the virtues; it means revealing precisely what you mean to reveal and acting efficiently. Unlike the aelfir, the drow value efficiency and elegance, both in practical and artistic matters. Sagacity comes from studying what comes before, but coming to your own conclusions about it. Taking others' word on everything is hardly sagacious. And Fury means that when you do commit to bloodshed, do it decisively and without fear. Limye, the Lady of Moonlight, represents Tenacity and Community. She is also the only aspect of the Damnou the aelfir didn't outlaw, worshiped by the Lahjan (one of the PC classes). Grace and Vigilance come from Lombre, the dark side of the moon, the goddess of the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress. And Sagacity and Fury belong to Lekole, the Red Moon. It's interesting that the war-goddess aspect is also the goddess of wisdom; I suspect the original idea was that you know why you're fighting and fight when you can do so without reservation.
Grace is actually so important it gets its own sidebar. Grace isn't just efficiency or guile. It's knowing when to be truthful and when to lie, and why you would do either. After all, isn't some of etiquette just polite fiction? Sometimes, being diplomatic might prevent a war or other catastrophe, honest or not. To have Grace is to be able to navigate multiple social situations and obligations carefully, wasting no words, presenting the right face to the right audience, and working towards a greater good. I also like to take it as a desire for elegance. It makes a nice contrast with the extravagant aelfir.
The other thing you'll note is none of the drow virtues have anything to do with drow superiority. The drow simply lack the same drive to elf-supremacy that the aelfir have, and this dates back to before they were a conquered people. They even have terms for 'basically this person counts as a drow' (shazin) which can apply to anyone who participates in their faiths and communities, whether they are human, gnoll, or even aelfir. One of the saints of Limye is an aelfir, after all; Hearts-Breath-Halting basically saved the worship of Limye when the aelfir were originally trying to purge all dark elf religion during the original conquest, and while she was burned at the stake for doing so, she has an entire holiday devoted to honoring her sacrifice and her work among the drow. Despite being vigilant and paranoid at times, the drow simply aren't that racist or exclusionary. After all, Grace is as much about being diplomatic and finding ways to get along as it is intriguing and stabbing people in the back.
The other really important bit of unusual drow religion is the Midwives and the goddess Ishkrah. Ishkrah is often treated as a little different from other Gods. Her magic is Occult, not Divine, and her followers are chosen from actual bloodlines who are born with spider-like mutations. Not every spider-blooded becomes a Midwife, but most do. She is a powerful and ancient ally of the drow that they bargained with when they couldn't bear children any longer, and she gave them the ability to produce the webbing and eggs that protect their unborn while they come to term. In return, she asked to meld some of the drow with her children, so her children could be beautiful like elves. Considering that Midwives have all kinds of powerful spider magic and their mutations and powers can make them insanely scary warriors, this was pretty much a mutual benefit kind of deal. Most people find the hatchery temples and clutch caves kind of frightening, and the Midwives have a fearsome reputation if anyone tries to fuck with the eggs, but they do a really good job of being something that looks scary and weird but it really mostly about caring for defenseless children. The Order of Midwives extends this to a duty to the helpless and defenseless outside of the clutch-caves, too, and while they have spooky occult magic and scary mutations, they're basically spider-paladins. I love the Midwives as an example of 'looks weird and scary, actually generally very good'. The drow have a lot of that going on.
Also note everyone in Spire goes beyond their 'traditional' religions. The city has a lot of Gods. A lot of Gods.
The drow also have their problems; they're people, they're not meant to be perfect. And their imperfections and issues aren't portrayed as disqualifying them from being the protagonists. They have a right to defend themselves from the oppressive system that has descended upon them. For one, the drow Home Nations have been in civil war for a long time. This is partly because the traditional drow nobles are kind of dicks. Power and privilege can fuck up your moral compass whoever you are; it's not unique to the aelfir. Many of the drow in Spire came here as refugees from the civil wars. Destera itself (the country Spire is in) was not only defeated, but the nobles of House Destera surrendered themselves in order to maintain their own privileges and retain some of their wealth and influence. The Home Nations' representatives fight amongst themselves in the Spire, trying to influence the city in ways that will make it easier to win back home. Many drow have completely given up (for understandable reasons) and just try to get by in the occupation as best they can. Some drow are active collaborators, rewarded handsomely for selling out. Most of the police are drow. Much of the army is, too. The whole city has a terrible crime problem, but that's less to do with it being a drow problem and more to do with it being a problem in a city with a massive divide between the rich and the desperate poor who have little recourse to protect themselves from criminals.
Still, at the end of the day, once you read over the various drow Noble Houses and their nonsense? There's no mythic golden age for the drow to go back to. The poor were still oppressed and society was still stratified before the aelfir; it just wasn't quite as bad or as racially motivated. It's not hard to look at the Houses and hope that maybe the revolution will get rid of them, too.
The drow make a good contrast to the aelfir, and a thorough reclaiming of a concept D&D never did well. They're oppressed and brutalized, though some of them live very well as either active collaborators or people who have managed to navigate through the new regime. They're unusual and interesting, but relatable enough to easily grasp and play. Their origins, biology, and unusual reproductive methods help shape their culture, but don't totally define it. Spire's drow are notably more cosmopolitan than others, because Spire is an international center. Also, women are traditionally the center of a drow family, but Spire's genders are relatively equal. Back in the Home Nations, it's traditional for a woman to take multiple husbands and wives; I like to take this as the drow using marriage in place of the practice of adult adoption. This bit comes from the description of the Duke of the North Docks, a Home Nations woman named Westfall, who has two husbands and a beloved human wife, which would be considered normal where she comes from.
One other thing to note about Spire in general: LGBTQ is simply not considered a big deal in any of the cultures in Spire. Men marry men, women marry women, there's a specific noble title for non-binary individuals (Souvain), and nobody considers any of this unusual. There's plenty of other oppression in this setting, but nobody cares if you like men or women or both or identify as non-binary or anything else. The books do their best to be open and inclusive on that front, and I appreciate it.
Next Time: The Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress
The Ministers of Our Hidden MistressOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 7: The Ministers of Our Hidden Mistress
The Ministry is weird. They're really important to Spire, but they're also totally unnecessary. The 'Running the Game' section makes it pretty clear: The Ministry exists mostly to have a way to ensure players are all members of one faction and make up a single revolutionary cell. One of the problems I have with them is that the Ministry is simply over-written for a throwaway plot device like that. When the book talks about the Ministry, they have layers upon layers, ranks upon ranks, and every member like the PCs has been through a frankly pretty ridiculous initiation process that's pretty intrusive on a player's background and character. Let's have a look at the 6 rites of initiation (naturally, all named for the drow virtues), which the section on the Ministry says nearly every cell does in one form or another.
The Rite of Tenacity has a prospective recruit locked up in a catacomb and left to hang among the dead for three days without food or water to demonstrate that they apparently don't die of dehydration easily. Fair enough, maybe this is a very extreme way of rooting out undercover cops or something, even though it's a bit insane. It seems like it's mostly a hazing ritual.
The Rite of Fury has the initiate told to act exactly as their urges tell them to, to spend a night killing people they feel have done them wrong. Many Magisters (the Inquisitor-esque official/spymaster above a PC cell) will see the initiate drugged so they can't be inhibited in their frenzy. They also coincidentally hope the killings will ensure you can't go back to your old life. The issue with this is it seems like a really good way to instantly get your Ministry spotted. Crazed drug berserker killing sprees seem a little bit public, and like they maybe leave some evidence, especially when they're unplanned explosions of furious violence. Sure, blood in blood out and all that, but you'd think they'd just want you to commit a murder to make sure you're not a cop or something. The actual crazy drugged up killing spree part seems like a bad idea if you're doing this for every single committed agent you add to your organization.
The Rite of Grace has you study an individual closely, kill them, and take their place. You're just assigned a target to do this with, and it has to be a target with close associates you will then have to fool. You're also supposed to gaslight the target for an extended period of time as you masquerade as them and ruin their reputation before you take over for them. The Ministry fucking loves doing this kind of stuff, along with mind control magic. It doesn't seem especially productive, and seems like a pretty huge bottleneck for recruits; completely replacing another person's identity seems like a pretty big ask and a very difficult task, even if you're the sort of person who's cool with doing this. The book says Magisters usually make sure the person they picked wasn't 'an innocent' because most Ministers would balk at doing this otherwise, which seems like a weird bridge too far considering this is an extended harassment campaign followed by murder.
The Rite of Vigilance has your Magister ask you to a meeting, hit you in the head with a rock, and lock you in the middle of a factory. You then have to hunt down the Magister to prove you're good at hunting spies even if you've recently been hit in the head with a rock. Fair enough, you could probably say this one is reasonable crazy fantasy training.
The Rite of Community has you go to a group of drow you hate, try to make amends, and work with them for a lunar month to help them as best you can. You're permitted to do this as a secret benefactor if you really can't bear to apologize to a street gang you hated or whatever. Again, fair enough.
The Rite of Sagacity sees you assigned to someone who knows about or deals with the cosmic horror elements of the setting, so you can learn about cosmic horror for a lunar month. Once again, this is pretty reasonable. You probably want to know that shit, as one of the best places you can hide out is the underspire (or the failed public transit system) if you really gotta shake some heat. Not to mention you need occultism to fight dirty sometimes.
So three of the six are reasonable enough bits of training or community building, one is a weird hazing ritual, and two are pretty nuts and feel like they'd really bottleneck Ministers and select for very specific kinds of people, which sort of goes against the pretty open character creation system. It isn't that this is dumb or bad or whatever, it's that it's intrusive in a way that undermines the Ministry's usefulness as a generic group the PCs exist as part of that gives them some structure. Similar for all the levels and ranks of service, or the way a lot of the Ministry fluff makes them out to have a lot of resources when it comes to watching the PCs and potentially fucking them over, but nothing to give to actually back them up. They end up feeling like one of the places where the game's Dark Heresy influence is a little too strong, and while you can obviously change anything you want about them, I find them less useful for their stated purpose than just starting the game with 'you're all members of the resistance, people who intend to rise against the Aelfir; why are you here and why did you all form a cell?' The Ministry as a shared assumption in PC background made the game harder to write for me, rather than easier like they're intended.
At the same time, I actually really like the Ministry as they are written; they work fine as an element of the setting. They feel about right for the priesthood of Lombre after 200 years of being banned in the wilderness: Full of pointless complications, obsessed with ferreting out the loyalty and fanaticism of their agents, and an obsessive target of the Solar Guard and the Paladins. It feels right for the aelfir to have a big, shadowy organization they're sure is the center of all resistance, where they think if they can just find the secret Weavers and the Mistress and put a bullet in their heads they can solve any and all drow unrest in the Spire. And players who aren't playing as Ministers having to reckon with the Ministry since it's the oldest and one of the most influential aspects of the general resistance to the aelfir is fine. Even if they think Ministers are fucking lunatics. Especially if they think Ministers are fucking lunatics.
It's a small change, but I really find the game much easier to write if you toss the idea that players must start out as Ministers, even if you keep the Ministry. The other issue I have with them is they steal a lot of oxygen from other resistance organizations. I wish there were more potential routes to the resistance than the Ministry, but in general the biggest weakness of Spire is that it sometimes gets more focused on its (admittedly excellent) world than on the whole 'actually rebelling against the aelfir' aspect. This is where the Ministry being the assumed only game in town causes the game some trouble; if you don't want to use them you have to do a lot more legwork than you normally do to come up with new organizations. It's not a big deal, but one of the usual strengths in Spire's writing is that you can easily change a lot and still use the information in the book to a large degree; this is one place where it's more difficult, since it means you go against the assumed structure of a normal campaign.
The main thing I would wish for in a second full Spire expansion, as a result of all the above, would be a book on revolution and resistance. I understand that there's two forces that keep it from being talked about in more detail in the core. One of them is that the game isn't interested in dictating the terms of your campaign, which is completely reasonable. The form your revolution takes is meant to be up to you. The other is that the game doesn't even really assume any sort of major revolution happens. It's perfectly happy for you to play a cell of Ministers who keep stopping this week's sinister plan or making incremental little gains as actual victory stays well out of sight. I'd love to see a book on the forms revolution could take in this setting, and some guidance and ideas about possible end-games and additional resistance factions. In part I want to see this because I really enjoy this line's writing, and I'd be interested to see what its own authors envision on the subject. It would also be a good excuse to put a faction system in there, which is the only real mechanical addition I think Spire could use. Some way to define the progress you're making as you try to take back the city street by street and district by district would be welcome, though that can certainly be handled entirely freeform and I recognize those kinds of systems are difficult to design.
Next Time: Black Magic
Folk magic, hot off the grill! (literally)Original SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 8: Folk magic, hot off the grill! (literally)
Black Magic is a small supplement for Spire, dealing with the dark magic of the Heart (a huge pulsating engine of chaotic magic at the center of Spire, nobody knows what it is, why it does what it does, and it warps space, time, and reality), some drow folk magic involving cooking and community, and adding playable demonologists and Blood Witches to the game. Also gentle cosmic harmony bees. I also don't find Black Magic very useful, but some of that is simply that I don't find the Heart very interesting. I've played a lot of Hams. I'm a little blase on insidious seeping chaotic magic that mutates and twists all the people who get too close to it, and that are oh so spooky and weird and undefined. Basically, I don't really give a shit about any of the cosmic horror elements in Spire and I think they're the most boring part of the setting, because I want to get back to the people and the politics and the rebellion. So the booklet entirely about the parts I don't personally care about isn't going to land that well for me; this isn't a statement about its quality, it's a matter of taste. I'm pretty sure even if you're really into those aspects this book still won't be the best thing in this line. The core book and Strata are both better.
The main event for Black Magic is the Blood Witch. Some people go to the Heart itself, journeying into the very heart of Spire through a nightmare realm of dark magic and strange echos, and eventually manage to come back with a really weird magical blood disease that gives them immense power. These are the legendary Blood Witches (mostly women; they survive the infection better, though men can be witches too). Spire has all kinds of legends about dealing with these weird and infectious creatures; their diseased blood can drag others into their covens, they run around looking for ancient lore and knowing the secrets of long dead civilizations from the echos of the Heart. They don't like to be interfered with, and they like cursing people or sending infected monsters to eat your children if you bother them. Similarly, they like to mess with people with deals that sound too good to be true or help that turns crazy if someone fails an inscrutable test of character; what's the use of having witch powers if you don't do that?
Naturally, the resistance is happy to recruit incredibly powerful, legendary, terrifying horror-witches. You'd just be leaving horror-witch powers on the table if you didn't. Would you rather have the terrifying woman who can turn into a hovering, writhing mass of hair, blood, shadows and maggots that moves like it was made of stop motion on your side, or angry at you?
Blood Witch actually has one of my favorite Refresh conditions: A Blood Witch Refreshes Stress when they share a moment of genuine intimacy with another person, as a person. No magical compulsion, no terror, no curses. Just actual, un-coerced, honest social interaction is the thing that helps them to heal themselves and keep going. Even if they don't realize it. It's probably the most intriguing and strongest bit of writing in their class. Their Core abilities let them declare an NPC is terrified of them for past dealings once per session, drink someone's blood (if it's still warm) to get visions about that person, and turn into their True Form. Any time a Blood Witch takes Moderate or Severe Fallout for any reason, they stop looking drow (or human, or aelfir, or gnoll; the Heart can take anyone but you're always playing drow) and turn into what the Heart made them. They begin to flicker from place to place in impossible ways. Their form becomes twisted, pulsing and writhing with magical energy and diseased blood. Every movement jerks and twitches like stop-motion (they like to use the word zoetropic for this, referring to an old style of early animation). As you might imagine, this isn't very subtle, but it scares the ever loving hell out of people. The Witch gains Compel and Pursue (you cannot escape a horror movie villain easily) when they look like this, and most people will run or try to kill them. They'll turn back at the end of the current situation, and can try to stop themselves from changing with Occult+Resist. They an also just mark d3 Stress on any gauge to change at any time.
Naturally, Blood Witches have the highest Blood resist in the game, coming at +3 (and +1 Shadow). This is important because instead of rolling to cast spells like most Occult classes, Witches mark Stress to Blood to use their hideous blood spells. The Blood Witch's abilities are powerful and mechanically useful, but they feel less interesting than most of the other classes. My hunch is that it's because they never really have a sense of escalation; you're a legendary horror monster from day 1, so your Low advances can feel a little undercooked since you still have to balance with other PCs and that doesn't quite fit your rep. The Mediums similarly just don't really feel like they fit the fluff; it isn't until the Highs that the Blood Witch is a legendary monster. The issue for me is that you start out with a Core that is 'I'm such a legendary monster that everyone is terrified of me' and the True Form sends everyone scurrying, even though you're not that powerful at the start. Also, the actual abilities themselves can sort of fall into a rut of 'and then you spray blood on it, and body horror happens!' combined with a middling mechanical effect.
They're good at Deceive and Resist, and start with Occult and Low Society.
Now, again: This is not to say they aren't powerful. And if you're into what this class is selling, I'd be willing to bet you'd have a great time playing a Blood Witch. They're not a bad class. Take their Familiar; you always have one as a Bond since you fed an animal your blood and made it a little horror. For a single Low advance, you can pick up the ability to both Fight and Sneak (or get +1 Blood or +1 Mind, or any combination of 2 of these) and give your Familiar some cool powers. Like using it as a surprising one-shot ranged weapon (Surprising gives you Mastery the first time you use a weapon in a fight). Or letting it deliver messages for you, or turn incorporeal, or change into other animals (with a weird tell that it's a familiar). Or Evil Eye Hex: You can take d6 damage to Blood to immediately lower the difficulty of acting against a specific foe (in any way, combat or out of combat) to 0 for the next 3 actions you or your allies attempt, and if you act, you have Mastery against them. It's crazy costly (d6 Blood is the same as getting shot, and even with high Blood it's not safe) but you can completely shut someone down and crush them with that hex, whether it's a combat situation or not. They can also spray AoE blood all over, but it's surprisingly weak, or steal faces.
In general, Blood Witches aren't as good at direct combat as they are at messing with and cursing people, despite their reputations. They're not bad at killing people, but most of their 'attack someone with magic' stuff isn't nearly as good as the curses or tricks. Take their Blood Torrent spell at Medium. They take d6 damage to Blood to gain a d6 Ranged Devastating (cannot be stopped by any armor, even reinforced armor) spell attack for the rest of the situation as they make people shoot blood everywhere. That's not bad exactly, but it's not that much better than shooting someone and it cost a lot of Blood to cast. Also, very few of their abilities actually raise Blood until they get to High advances. So while you start out high on Blood (an Enlisted, Laborer or Criminal Blood Witch would come with +2 Blood, plus their Familiar giving +1 they could have 6 starting Blood) you don't gain much more until the height of your power. Also, I want to play the crime Witch now. Doin' Witch crimes.
The real marquee abilities in Medium for the Witch are Wending Corridors and Lair. Wending Corridors lets the Witch automatically succeed all Pursue tests for an entire situation for d3 Stress. They can catch you or escape from you effectively at will, using their creepy horror villain teleport to follow you around so they're always behind you or ahead of you. Pretty nice when you need to escape the cops because of all your Witchery. The Lair transforms an area of the city into your Lair, giving you a Street level Bond with it. This Bond lets you trap people, watch people, find items, and know what transpires within your domain. This Bond also takes 1/2 Stress from any Stress marked to the Bond, and you can remove 2 Stress from it at any time by spending 1 Blood. This is excellent. Witches generally pick up a sphere of influence or place of power, and this can make a hell of a safe house or home base neighborhood for the PC cell. Having your resistance cell's safe house be the magically dominated domain of a powerful but on-your-side Witch who can curse the shit out of the people who live there if they inform on you or shift the geography to hide your guns from the cops is surprisingly practical.
Their Highs let them do stuff like move their Lair to wherever they are at will (at the cost of some Blood). Or become unable to die; if they have Unkillable, any Fallout that kills the Witch instead makes them respawn in their Lair the next day. Unless they don't have a Lair, in which case they return to the Heart and lose this ability entirely, which seems needlessly punishing for not having taken a specific Medium advance. Sure, Lair is awesome and you should take Lair, but rendering the ability less useful if you don't is a little odd. Unless the wording is simply unclear and you lose the ability either way after respawning once, but the way it's written makes it seem like it's definitely 'one shot if you have no Lair, unlimited if you do'. Every High advance also adds +2 Blood. A fully Blood specced Witch can hit 10 Blood if they somehow have all their High advances. That means they can get shot with a cannon and not even flinch. Don't fuck around with legendary witches.
I gotta say, writing them up kind of talked me into the Blood Witch. I can see a lot of application for their abilities, and that Refresh condition really does a lot of work in making them better. It could have easily been 'terrify someone' or 'exert your will with curses and power', but instead it's 'actually have an unguarded moment with another person, treating them like a person and receiving the same'. Add to that the way the Witch bears the cost of their spells, not someone else, and there's a lot you could do with a Blood Witch PC. Plus the idea of the resistance recruiting a horror Witch because she's lonely and willing to listen to them (after maybe giving them several inscrutable tests of character), then using her weird magic hut to hide guns from the cops is pretty on point for Spire's tone. Colonialist death squad comes in to fuck with refugees and drow Baba Yaga horror movie happens to them is also good.
Most of the rest of Black Magic is other 'extra advance' classes, which were covered in some detail in the last review; I wanted to go in more on the Blood Witch since they're the big marquee addition that sells this book. The Grangrou is a mixture of folk magic and excellent cooking that can draw a community together in power and resilience. Goat stew, therapy, and holy spice magic so good it can literally bring a person back from the dead at High levels. Though I think my favorite of their abilities is just 'your cooking is so good that when you have a meal with people, any social tests made against them gain Mastery because they're in awe of your cooking'. No magic at all, just good food. The Deep Apiarist is awesome; they have magic harmony bees that live in their bodies and they fight to contain the Heart and prevent occult chaos from happening throughout Spire. With their gentle cosmic bees. One of their abilities is 'once per session the bees tell you it will be okay, healing d6 Mind Stress' . They can also flood the area with bees. Naturally. And eventually the bees can sting all the chaos out of a person, turning them into a crystal statue. Oh no perhaps the bees have given that person too much cosmic harmony.
Finally, the other key bit of Black Magic is the demons, and this is the part I find mostly useless. You see, demons are mostly just weapons of mass, indiscriminate destruction in Spire. A demonic incursion is an altered space where things fundamentally hostile to reality can exist, and try to kill or drive mad everything normal that exists in that space. Eidolons and demons can be a little more subtle than a simple mass incursion, and function as a Bond that has some crazy powers but its own style of Fallout that can really hurt you. 'Demonology is almost always a terrible idea', the book says. This is pretty much true from the demonologist advance scheme and the rules for demonic Bonds. Demonological Fallout can range from 'you suffer 3 Moderate Fallouts on other gauges at once' to 'you can never again use demonology' to (and note this is a Minor one) 'an ally immediately suffers a Medium Fallout, or a non-Bonded NPC you care about dies' or (for Severe demon Fallout) 'you and everyone within a set distance of you, likely hundreds to thousands of people, die as reality rends apart and cackling horrors shred everyone'.
What do you get in return for all this? Not much, really. The demon can potentially do powerful stuff through its Bond, but for once, the GM rolls for all its checks and doesn't tell you the result, just what the demon reports (and demons lie, a lot). You also need a Low Advance from Demonologist to even make requests of the demon, and it requires a separate test before then testing the demon's action in secret. So you have two potential points of mechanical failure, plus if the demon fucks up and gets Stressed the Demonic Fallout table is the harshest in the game, as above. The main Advances they gain of any note (most just deal with making Occult magic a little easier) are effectively nuclear suicide vests, the ability to summon an Incursion in an area the size of a house (at Medium) or an entire city district (at High). Both Advances will kill your PC to use, and the High Advance kills thousands, maybe millions of people. In short, the Demonologist is an NPC class in a system that doesn't really have any need for NPC classes; their abilities are all terrible ideas that aren't worth it and you should never use them. It's the good old 'no mechanical reason to engage with Chaos' issue from Hams.
Finally, Black Magic rounds out with a set of extra Fallout you can inflict on people who suffer their Fallout from Stress gained from attempting Occult magic, but I don't really find that useful or necessary. I prefer to focus on the Stress and Fallout results that already exist, especially as these Occult ones are generally harsher to the point that it feels like an option for punishing players for playing Occult PCs. It can also happen to PCs who suffer Stress when they're dealing with
On the whole, Black Magic isn't exactly bad, just it's the weakest of the publications for Spire. Part of that's my own taste; I'm just not into the part of the setting it's focused on. Part of that's that it's a 30 page booklet that mostly consists of new advance tables and one new class. Part of that is that demonology falls flat in the usual 'no reason to ever actually engage with this unless you're an idiot who wants to suffer for pretty much no gain' way that dark magic tends to in RPGs. The bigger part is probably just how little actual flavor writing there is in Black Magic. It's almost entirely new mechanics rather than fluff. Still, the Blood Witch isn't a bad addition to the game, and gentle cosmic harmony bees are good. Still, Strata is a much better expansion and if you're only buying one expansion, I'd go with Strata.
Next Time: GMing advice and Spire's revolution
GMing the RevolutionOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 9: GMing the Revolution
One thing I really like about Spire: Spire's a game about some pretty dark shit. You're outmatched revolutionaries fighting an enemy of endless might in a sea of concrete and teeming masses of elves and other people. Your enemies are willing to do some seriously awful stuff, and you might be, too. To that end, Spire is very concerned with player and GM comfort. This is not just a case of 'we put the X card in'; it's a large part of the GMing section. The game wants you to discuss 'lines and veils' before you begin a campaign, go over things that may be potentially triggering for players or the GM, encourages the use of content warnings (Strata has them on every adventure to go over whether or not that adventure goes places a play-group might not want to), and throws the X Card mechanic in on top of that. The 'Lines and Veils' mechanic is thus:
"I don't want a game about child abuse, that's a line we don't cross.", and now the game will leave that stuff entirely off the table, because that's a Line. "I'm okay with there being torture or sex in the game, but I want the scene to fade to black rather than going into any detail." is a Veil.
This is a really good idea in a game like Spire. Establishing what sort of stuff people are comfortable with (and what they're comfortable with, but don't want to focus on or go into detail about) before play and sticking to it is important. If you're going to play a dark game about dark subject matter, you need to discuss what people are okay with and you need to stick to it, and Spire is consistent and proactive on that in its GMing advice. It's basically the complete opposite of something like AdEva and that's in its favor. No ambushing people with awful stuff and then going 'oh but it would be realistic' or 'well I thought it was deep and it SHOULD be shocking'.
Like most good GMing advice, it also says to use this same time to establish what players actually want to deal with. Not just by discussing what they want to play, but also by paying mind to what kinds of characters they select, what skills and backgrounds they take, etc. There's a great sidebar on 'what a player is telling you they want' for each class. Someone picked a Knight? They almost certainly want some scenes where they get to be 'the have-a-go-hero' in addition to everything else. A Bound clearly wanted to be drow batman to some extent. The Idol is going to have parties, you can't stop them. Firebrands want to actually lead revolutions and write manifestos and improvise and get in trouble. Etc etc. It's no replacement for asking players what they're interested in, obviously, but the class sidebar hasn't been wrong yet in my experience. Similarly, when in play, they encourage trying to say yes to player questions about the world because they often indicate the player is interested in a part of the setting or game and hoping they can engage with it.
Another big thing that I goddamn love: They tell you not to worry about making your plot a surprise. That shit can lead to lying to players, hiding information, and the risk your big twist or whatever falls flat. And you know, if all you had was a twist, your story might not have been great anyway. Better to come up with a rough outline of what you want to write about together, then fill in from there. Your plot can still have twists and surprises and suspense even if you've already sat down and hashed out 'We're going to work towards the Allied Defense Force turning their guns on their aelfir officers' or 'Oh damn, the Paladins are moving towards launching an explicit fascist coup and taking over the normal colonialist government and are threatening to start a program of ethnic cleansing'. The characters don't need to start aware that's what's happening, but your players and you working out that's where things are going still leaves room for surprises and suspense (the dice alone will make sure of that) but also makes sure everyone wants to play that story.
Another big thing in Spire, and one of the few bits of guidance it has about its ideas of revolution, is that it's better to subvert than destroy. Spire is written with the perspective that shooting a midlevel official in the head won't necessarily do you any good. Shooting him and making sure his replacement is someone who'll look the other way or pass you money or supplies? Better. Getting blackmail on him so that you can make him do what you want? Also good. Spire doesn't really have a lot of guidance on mass movements or large-scale revolt. Most of the focus is on spy-games, subversion, and cell-based actions. That is, after all, how the Ministry thinks. They're spies. They think spy based solutions are how you do.
At every level, too, you're exhorted to change things wherever you need to or want to. One of the reasons this works is that Spire is very elastic. I'm running a very different Spire than the one written, to play down the cosmic horror and generally focus more on the politics (with plenty of weird magic still, weird magic is cool) and despite making sweeping changes, I can still use almost all the material in the books not related directly to stuff I already changed. This is partly because Spire tells you a lot of what but not a lot of why, which lets you decide why things happen how they do and shift details around often. Spire is also written to be changed and modified; there aren't a ton of 'load bearing' ideas in the story besides 'Giant city, weird magic, ruled by asshole elves, oppressed elves, lots of people from all over the world here'.
For instance, there's a section on deciding what to do with your aelfir. Are they really, genuinely alien? Or do they just look that way because they're weird and privileged and have lives of decadence and wealth and ease that make it hard for them to identify with their subjects? Are they just people with a weird culture who don't like to question their government because their imperialism benefits them? Is all the crazy emotionless stuff just how drow see them? Or are they really scary creatures who are fundamentally alien? And if so, does that mean you want a simpler story of fighting evil incarnate, or does it mean they're so distracted they barely register all the power struggles and things and just come down on players like bad weather sometimes so you can focus on other concepts in your story? You have a ton of latitude built into them, on purpose, to tell plenty of different stories with the same concept of high elven oppressors. It's great.
So while I'd like more on revolution and the ways it can look, the GMing advice is generally very good and very respectful. A focus on player and group comfort is important in a game like this, and the GMing chapter does a great job of highlighting how to tailor and alter the very strong setting in Spire. It's excellent work.
Oh, and the big list of questions to ask to ensure you have a coherent and filled in villain is really good.
Next Time: Strata
The Good and the IndifferentOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 10: The Good and the Indifferent
So, Strata is a mixed book. It's a book I'd still recommend; the good bits are good enough that the entire book is worth it. But it's much more mixed than I'd hoped. The sole reason for this? Over half of Strata's 231 pages are pre-made adventures. We'll talk about this part first. The issue with the pre-mades isn't even their quality (though not all of them are good) so much as that Spire just doesn't feel like a system where a fully pre-made adventure is going to help that much. I feel like you'd get most of what's useful out of all of them by just printing the hook for the adventure, mixed in with more normal setting fluff.
For instance, one of the adventure seeds is that the players run a high end patisserie that funnels its profits to the resistance, spies on aelfir customers, and stays 'in fashion' at all costs so it can continue to do both things. This is a good adventure hook. Owning a business that is popular with the occupiers and uses that to inform on them and funnel their money to the resistance is a great idea for a game. Then you add an entire staff of NPCs (rather than the players) who initiated the plot (they killed an aelfir general, and they're wavering in their loyalty to the Ministry and tempted to just run a patisserie) and you get the sense they felt they had to just to have a full adventure, even as the number of staffers fills out the entire shop and might crowd out the players. They're not badly written or anything (the hyena mascot is a very good boy), just they don't feel very necessary when the adventure's already given you the useful bit on the first page or so. Heck, if you want the dead general part, just have the players whack the guy on orders from the Ministry as the thing that starts the shop spiraling out of control and makes them choose between their loyalty to cake and their loyalty to Lombre. 'Hey your shop has done enough, kill this guy and anything more you can do is gravy (also you're probably going to die)' would fit perfectly as a midpoint to a game with this hook.
Add to this when they actually get to the adventure bits your players can affect, they're very general. You'll be doing most of the filling in of these plot hooks yourself, because Spire is a narrative system. There's no saving you tons of mechanical prep-time by having pre-made balanced encounters or dungeons or whatever like you might get in something like D&D or WHFRP (Not that I've usually been that impressed with that aspect of pre-mades there, mind). The pre-mades are really just extra-detailed plot-hooks with maybe a few extra mini-mechanics (like a stat for how much a rogue drow noble house has taken control of Spire that checks campaign fallout, etc) that simply take up too much of the book. You'll still be doing most of the legwork yourself and god knows what your players are going to get up to anyway.
I'm sure the pre-mades are useful to someone; my take on pre-mades should always be taken with a bit of a grain of salt since I usually don't use them in any system. But even if they are, I'm not sure they're 'more than half the book' useful to anyone.
But enough about the less useful bits of the book: The actual fluff stuff is mostly gold. I'm not going to go into too much detail (considering these sections are the main reason to buy Strata) but the High Society part especially does an amazing job of further fleshing out the aelfir as antagonists. You get neat details, like how the aelfir are ruled by a glacial immortal queen whose power flows from the north pole. Spire, however, is so far south that the aelfir there can regard her as a quaint anachronism and ignore her, which infuriates her, but she's so cold and slow that she won't try to purge their heresy for centuries, by which point she might show up to find Spire enormously different. Or bits like: drow use messenger birds to carry messages. Aelfir think that's too crass, so they use hummingbirds. The problem is hummingbirds can only carry tiny messages, so they send them in swarms to all give their little bits of the full message. Yes, aelfir invented bird-twitter and then the annoyance that is twitter-threads. They would.
There's also some interesting stuff on why you might be able to turn young aelfir, and the advantages and disadvantages of the types of aelfir patron you can find. Guy who's playing around at being a traitor for his gap year? Won't try to micromanage you, doesn't care what you do with the money, probably won't bother betraying you later, but will pull his money out as soon as it starts to actually show on his trust fund. Idealistic aelfir woman who believes she can make a radical new type of art out of anti-racism? Will help you wholeheartedly and do her best, but probably wants to be part of the cell herself, probably has no espionage training, and probably wants to dictate exactly what you do to make sure it's properly artistic. Besides, she's adding a high elf to it, that makes the rebellion better by aelfir reckoning. Yes, you can run into the problem of aelfir recruits trying to white savior your cell, assuming they know better than the oppressed group that's been hiding stuff from the oppressors their entire lives and accidentally leading you all off a cliff (the cliff is Paladins). Which is hilarious.
At the same time, they have a lot of money and potentially a lot of influence, and you need both.
Strata also adds a nice little 'potential allies within this district' list of NPC concepts and how the PCs might turn them. From an aelfir who is just super into having drow lovers (and so wants to be with the rebellion because he thinks drow rebels are hot-blooded and great) to a 'pampered' pet drow who fucking hates her high up master for surgically altering her to be more artistic (her mistress thought she was doing her a favor, making the woman look more aelfir) there's some nice stuff in here. Plus the sheer excesses of the aelfir can be hilarious, like the one who wanted a coat made of live songbirds but who has to have an army of servants following them at all times to feed the birds and keep them alive because anybody can have a coat of dead songbirds. The art also continues to be fantastic. The High Society section is really my highlight of the book, as is the Inksmith.
The Low Society section is good too, don't get me wrong. It's just more uneven. I would have really liked more on the actual work of the Works, so to speak. There's plenty on the fantastical sides of the Spire; I'd like a little more on how the people of the Works actually live. The addition of a bog-standard zombie plague as the main bit on the Works district is one of the missed opportunities of the book. The addition of a Gazetteer Extra Advance is pretty good, though, since the Works is also where the city's massive printing presses blaze away at truth and fiction. They get a special ability that is 'HAVE A CRAZY CONSPIRACY WALL FULL OF RED STRING' so there is that. The Gardens have some decent stuff but again, it's mostly about cults and witches. The picture where they show drow using statues of drow to trick predatory moss into trying to eat the statues so they can farm it is pretty awesome though. You also get rules for human tools used as weapons, such as the 'chained-saw' or the 'pneumatic sheers'. They aren't great (they increase Difficulty by 1 even though they hit like...well, a chainsaw) but still pretty fun. You can also become a plant wizard druid down in the gardens if you want.
The Perch fills in a ton of great stuff on the Small Gods, too. They're all so attracted to the place because Perch is a precariously perched shanty-town that wasn't supposed to exist and the people there can't build permanent religious structures. So Gods who have lost everything come there to find whatever worshipers they can among people who will happily worship a God that is willing to be a rope or an axe or a hip flask. It's great. I love the picture of an old angel of the aelfir Old Gods being lured into an axe with a little worship like it was peanut butter on a mouse trap. You get a ton more on the Bound (drow vigilantes who bind the Small Gods into their tools, one of the PC classes) and how, exactly, they do their binding and what it means. It's good stuff.
And you get a really nice filling-in of the Underspire of Derelictus. My favorite bit down there is that the aelfir almost never show up, except to hunt people for sport or kidnap children sometimes (anyone who has played Necromunda shouldn't be surprised there are Spirers in Spire), so people have made them into mythic Golden Ones. Another cute thing: Sometimes, when they grab a drow child from the desperate poor in the Underspire, a popular thing to do with them is to bring them up to a life of luxury just for the absurdity of it. Some aelfir kidnap drow children from the poorest regions so they can shower them with money and luxury, rather than the more standard torture opera or enslavement. The legends of the Golden Ones down in Derelictus are great. This is also an excellent backstory for a PC or a way to whack an aelfir official when they take their heir down to learn to hunt for people or something, down in the dark where anything could have gotten them.
There's way more in Strata and it's worth picking up for the first half of it alone. The fluff in Spire really is one of the big draw points and I would happily pay for more sourcebooks of it; it's where you get many of the best adventure hooks and ideas. The pre-mades are much more mixed because A: This just doesn't feel like a system where a pre-made has a lot of points where it can truly save prep time and B: The most useful part of each of them is the hook itself, anyway. I'd have loved another Domain and then about half as much time devoted to the pre-mades; as it is they make Strata a more mixed recommendation than the core book. But it's still a recommendation. If you liked the core and want more, Strata is definitely worth it.
And seriously, the Inksmith is aces. The class design in Spire in general is one of the best and biggest hooks to getting people excited for the game and excited to make changes to get advances. It's real good.
Next Time: Sparked by the Revolution: Spire's SRD
Spark Your Own RevolutionOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 11: Spark Your Own Revolution
So part of the reason I feel comfortable writing up the entire base resolution mechanic of Spire (aside from being able to do it in like one paragraph) is that the authors have done the same. https://rowanrookanddecard.com/product/the-resistance-toolbox/ is where you can pick up the Resistance SRD and hacking guide (It's pay as you wish). You have no idea how helpful it is to just have a concise, clearly written document where the writers of a game lay out 'Hey, here's why we did the things we did mechanically, and here are some guidelines if you want to make your own stuff'. Now I like trying to figure out the logic behind RPG design (or if there is any) but let me tell you, it's a lot easier to do when the writers just tell you.
They also do a good job of doing so! The SRD is an easy-to-read and easy to grasp document that's written with user understanding in mind. They lay out the core of their game system: Resistance's base engine is about losing things. Not losing the game, mind you, but I'm not kidding when I compare dice hitting the table to Blood Bowl. You have a significant chance of things going wrong every time a roll is called for. You don't really roll dice to demonstrate mastery of stuff in Resistance, so much as your mastery means you have less chance of losing badly when you roll dice. Dice should only show up when 'could things go horribly wrong?' is 'oh god yes'. The actual resolution mechanic is much more about points of potential failure than grand triumphs, and it's designed that way. Similarly, they're upfront about 'this is really not a game about tactical play'. Resistance is a little more mechanical than something like PBTA and definitely more traditional, but it's really not about lines of fire or ammo counts or whatever.
The idea that the game mechanics are designed around potential points of failure (they say you should decide your Resistances around what players stand to lose, after all) is really important to understanding Spire and the base system as a whole, and I admit it's not something I really grasped before I saw the SRD. The explanations here are honestly quite helpful if you're not quite used to narrative games and Spire is your first, so I'd recommend it as reading even if you don't want to try to design or hack your own stuff for Spire or make your own Resistance game. It's an interesting way to think about it, and the more I look at it, the more that's how mechanics tend to serve in a lot of games; every time you roll dice, something is in question and it's a point of potential failure.
One of the other really important bits of design is that characters grow. The SRD doesn't actually dictate you must use the same Low Medium High Advance scheme as Spire did; they did that in Spire because one of their goals was to change the scope of the game as a campaign went on. But you should use advances. Resistance is intended for campaign play. In one interview with the authors I listened to, they were pretty explicit that they wanted solid character advancement and growth rules to help encourage campaign play and that they wanted them to be more robust than what you find in PBTA games. Character advancement in Resistance is not intended to be linked to EXP or playtime, but rather to the characters driving the narrative of the game forward. In Spire, you earn advances by changing the city. Deciding what people do to cause their characters to grow is as critical as deciding what they have on the line. You also need to decide what Skills and Domains are in your game. A game where everyone is some flavor of occult wizard probably wouldn't even have a single Occult Domain; it would probably have all kinds of them, and maybe even make them the main way you gain Domains. Similarly, one where you're all WWI soldiers hiding from artillery in the mud probably isn't going to have a single 'Fight' skill like a game where everyone isn't a soldier.
Similarly they actually give good guidelines on class design, and even have some pretty good examples of what class design would look like for, say, a gritty WWI game (hey that's actually just useful for my current Spire campaign!). They also have good guidelines on creating Fallout results, which are also pretty helpful for adding my own Fallout in Spire, too. Actual solid guidelines like 'Fallout can set up complications for the next session, frame the next scene, force the player to choose between two bad options' etc etc are useful to have. Like I said, I'm not really used to running narrative game systems, and I've found the SRD really helpful for getting into the right mindset as a supplement for the main book.
The Resistance Toolkit is a great resource, and definitely worth taking a look at if you want to run or play Spire. It's not even very long; if you have the patience to read my crazy walls of text, you can almost certainly make the time for 24 pages of solid game design advice. I'm not really sure I'll end up making my own classes or anything; the base ones are definitely strong enough and cover a wide enough range of characters that I don't have a pressing need. At the same time, it's nice to have the tools, and I'm definitely going to be using the advice on Fallout design to tailor things to my own campaigns. I really hope this kind of thing keeps popping up with RPG design; I love having a look at what the authors actually intended and why they do what they do. Death of the author and all that, but it's a lot easier to work with a system when you know how it was supposed to work. Whether you're changing something to taste, designing your own extra material, or just running it as intended.
Next Time: Spire Wrapup
Wrapping UpOriginal SA post Spire and Black Magic and Strata
Post 12: Wrapping Up
So I think it's pretty obvious by now that I'd recommend Spire. It's an unusual game for being a blend of two styles; it's still heavy on the setting and the world, and it's still a little closer to an older style of RPG than most heavily narrative systems. But I find that makes it a good first narrative game for people who usually play others. More critically, the setting is really well done. To be honest, though, I do think the Cosmic Horror bits are the weakest part of the setting from a writing standpoint as well. They're not bad if you like that stuff, but they lean way too close to 'okay, the writers really like Warhammer and Bloodborne', so to speak. There's just nothing particularly intriguing or even mysterious about the Heart as it's written. We've all seen a thousand corrupted wounds in reality that spill forth mutagenic dark magic and terrible energies. It's been done to death. It's fortunate for the setting that everything else about it is goddamn fantastic. The pervasive sense of magic and the power of faith and religion throughout Spire is excellent, and helps make up for the fact that the Heart is kind of boring. The rest of the Spire is so exciting it doesn't matter.
That setting really sells the book, as does the strong central conflict. The aelfir are a well written villain, and the intentional range of interpretations for their seemingly alien nature is fantastic. Similarly, the game's concern for player and group comfort when handling dark themes and terrible events marks it apart as genuinely mature, compared to edgelord nonsense like Adeptus Evangelion. Spire absolutely gets that it has to treat the stuff it's dealing with with care, and it deserves a lot of praise for that.
The game's rules might be simple, but the classes and advances (and even the equipment) actually get a surprisingly strong blend of mechanical and fictional abilities out of them anyway. Advances are exciting, and you aren't going to run out of things you want to learn how to do. There's a solid mix of 'new things you can try to do', but also 'thing you can just do'. The normal skills and domains are concerned with avoiding disaster when you're called on to make a roll, but advances can often give you entirely new avenues of power that don't take any rolling. A simple thing like 'if you put on your mask and disappear into a crowd, you won't be seen unless you draw attention to yourself' is flavorful and very useful. They often mix in nicely with bonuses to your resistances and new Skills. Like the Bound being able to make anyone who drinks from their hip-flask tell them about crimes they've been involved in, while also learning Compel from the same ability. Similarly, Mastery is a big enough bonus and situational enough to distribute throughout all sorts of advances and powers. Spire makes a lot of a simple system.
With strong setting writing, good mechanics, a strong sense of respect for its themes and its players and a solid main conflict, there isn't much left to say besides 'you should really give Spire a try'. I find the add-on books considerably more mixed than the main book, but they aren't bad. Strata is definitely the stronger of the two, but that's hardly a surprise when it's a full on 200+ page supplement and Black Magic is a short add-on. I'd still definitely recommend Strata, and Black Magic is useful if you're interested in the cosmic horror aspects. The Blood Witch is a solid core class, more solid than I thought it was at first. I would love to see more books expanding the districts of Spire and the setting the way Strata did, though I'd also prefer if they cut down on the sheer amount of time they devote to pre-made adventures. The Strata pre-mades are just too much of the book. Even if you found them useful, they're really not 'over half of the book' useful, especially not when you get so many good plot hooks and so much good fluff out of the other half of the book.
Spire is very much worth some attention. It's a great game that I'd recommend to anyone, even with my occasional misgivings with parts of it.