The drow have become a fixture in Dungeons and Dragons, and that brings a lot of baggage to the game, since they live squarely at the corner of “a lot of players like even sentient, free willed beings to be born evil so it’s okay to kill them” and “hey, this thing that was born evil looks a lot like a human being and also happens to have dark skin.” Over the years, there have been several attempts to reconcile this concept, but those attempts just seem to multiply the awkward tropes associated with drow, oddly, without decreasing the overall appeal of them as an element of the game.
Given that most of this baggage is associated with a species that is unique to Dungeons and Dragons, it’s interesting that a game that addresses the politics of occupation and occupiers controlling the narrative of a culture, utilizing elves and drow as examples, comes from a game that isn’t derived from any version of the d20 SRD. In this review, we’re going to look at the game Spire, a unique RPG system that explores what life is like in a drow city occupied by elves, and to what ends your drow will go to make a lasting change to their home. Spire successfully funded on Kickstarter last August and went on sale in March of this year.
The Construction of the Spire
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The PDF is 220 pages in length, with about five pages of thanks and the names of Kickstarter backers, a character sheet, and a two-page index.
Major sections of the book have full page artwork, which is color line art in washed out colors, highlighting the tone of the work. The artwork consists of bold black lines, and splashes of color are more representative of the emotional impact of the scene being presented than a realistic use of lighting or colors.
Headers are underlined in red, with blue sub-headers and dark grey sidebars. All of this is on blue pages with a light background image of concentric circles. It is a visually striking presentation that helps to convey the tone of the stories the game is trying to tell, but the easily seen headers and sidebars do an excellent job of breaking up the information presented into logical divisions.
Welcome to Spire and The World of Spire
The first image you see in this section is an amazing image of the titular city of Spire with an overlay graphic showing the relationships of the neighborhoods to one another. Welcome to Spire, the first section of the book, gives a high-level pitch about the tone of the game, the dice used, and paragraphs on what it means to be a player and a GM. If you are wondering if this is the kind of RPG that has a “what is an RPG” section, it does, but it’s contained on two pages and interspersed with discussions of tone and expectations for the setting.
The World of Spire section describes the broad status quo of the world. If you already know that drow are elves that live underground, dislike sunlight, and have an affinity for spiders, none of that is subverted. After that, just about everything else is. The core concept is that the players are portraying drow characters that are members of The Ministry, a secret cult/revolutionary organization, trying to reclaim Spire from the Aelfir (high elf) oppressors.
The aelfir can’t feel sadness and may not feel empathy either. According to the aelfir, the drow were once aelfir who were cursed for their evil ways and forced to flee from the sun, although there are drow that believe that drow have always been the way they are now, no curse involved. Spire is a huge, mysterious tower like city, that had plenty of space within it to shield those living in it from the sun.
Humans also figure into the story, as a mercenary element crazy enough to dig around ancient cities that predate the modern age, reverse engineering arcane medical procedures, steam-powered devices, and firearms.
There are sidebars that discuss lands beyond Spire, Drow Traditions, and Aelfir Traditions, and while there is a lot more lore coming, this relatively short section already showcases that the game is walking a tight line between recognizable and subverted tropes.
The Rules, Skills and Domains, Equipment, and Bonds
The next sections of the book are The Rules, Skills and Domains, Equipment, and Bonds. While these are all distinct sections, the unified way in which these elements work with one another makes these sections feel like more of an extended explanation of the game.
Characters roll a d10 to resolve an action. If they have a skill that pertains to the roll, they can add a d10. If they have a domain—an area of expertise where they are comfortable operating—that applies to the roll, they can add another d10. Sometimes equipment, circumstances, or character abilities will allow the character to roll with mastery, adding another d10. Since mastery can only be applied once per action, most die rolls will cap at four dice, although some character abilities play with this cap.
More difficult tasks remove a die from the die pool, so that four dice pool, against a difficulty 2 task, only allows the character to roll two dice. The highest die resolves whether the action is a critical failure, a failure, a success at a cost, a success, or a critical success.
Failure usually results in stress, which is tracked under five main resistances (some characters might also have an armor resistance added to the list as well):
- Blood (Physical health)
- Mind (Mental well-being)
- Silver (Wealth and resources)
- Shadow (Ability to operate secretly)
- Reputation (Social standing)
The stress taken will vary depending on the stakes of the initial action, and might be generated with a d3, d6, or a d8. As soon as a character takes stress, they roll for fallout, which has minor, moderate, and severe levels depending on the total amount of stress the character has taken.
What this means is that some failures don’t have immediate consequences, but every failure starts to add up. It also means that the rules for taking a hit to your personal funds are the same as taking a blow to the body in combat, although the fallout, when it happens, will be different.
Different character types have different actions that allow them to remove stress when they take those actions, which reinforce the theme of that character type. The world makes more sense to a vigilante that can bring transgressors to justice, and someone well versed in commerce is going to set things right by cutting some deals.
Bonds work the same way as resistances, but they have their own list of fallout, and a character doesn’t check for fallout as often as they do for their regular resistances. Most equipment has something it’s very good at doing (which might allow a roll with mastery), and something it’s not suited for (which increases the difficulty). Weapons and armors have their own tags, which have special effects when rolling a 1 or a 10, or allowing stress to be rolled multiple times, keeping the best or worst result.
Characters and Combat
The next sections of the book cover characters and combat. Character creation consists of choosing a durance, a class, and picking a few starting abilities and equipment.
The durance is a period of indentured servitude that the drow serve under the aelfir to “repay” them for what the aelfir contribute to society. Depending on the durance selected, your character might gain more skills, or special boxes they can add to their resistance that doesn’t count against their normal stress.
The character classes available in the core rules are the following:
- Azurite (A well connected mercantile priest)
- Bound (A vigilante with items that have minor gods dwelling in them, boosting their power)
- Carrion-Priest (Death worshippers with pet hyenas)
- Firebrand (True believer revolutionaries)
- Idol (Famous, well-regarded artists)
- Knight (A member of a once proud martial organization that now operates like a gang)
- Lajhan (A priest of the moon goddess of the drow)
- Masked (A drow that learned subterfuge and espionage while serving under the aelfir)
- Midwife (A drow that is part spider and protects the young and the future of drow society)
- Vermission Sage (A drow sage that has learned secrets of the city’s extradimensional spaces)
Several of the class abilities grant the character the ability to use magic. Magic in this setting always has a price, and often spells will cause a character to mark stress, usually in a manner that matches the tenor of the religion and the type of spell being cast. A character using their own pain to fuel a spell might take blood stress, while someone sacrificing valuable items may take silver stress, and some spells might require more than one type of stress to be taken.
Each character class has a list of Low, Medium, and High advances, and there is a list of extra advances based on narrative choices the character has made in game. For example, joining the city guard allows for advances other characters may not be able to access, as does getting infected with a magical blood disease that is trying to bring an extra-dimensional being into the world.
Advances are earned by making some kind of change to the city. Small changes earn low advances, moderate changes earn a medium advance, and severe and potentially irreversible changes result in high advances. Characters are expected to gain low advances often, with the other advances gained at the end of major, long term objectives.
Combat is handled as a conversation, a convention that shouldn’t be too difficult for players accustomed to Powered by the Apocalypse or similar games, but for gamers from a more traditional background, this might be a trickier adjustment. Unlike most of those games, however, Spire suggests that you may want to just ask for an action and then move to the next player at the table, unless there is a logical follow up action that would make sense to resolve before moving to the next player and asking them what they are planning.
There are multiple chapters detailing the districts of the city, and they comprise a large portion of the book. In addition to giving locations, the various sections include example NPCs, organizations, and sidebars that call out more of the setting or potential adventure hooks.
The districts covered in this chapter are:
- Districts and Factions of Academia
- Districts and Factions of Commerce
- Districts and Factions of Crime
- Districts and Factions of High Society
- Districts and Factions of Low Society
- Districts and Factions of the Occult
- Districts and Factions of Order
- Districts and Factions of Religion
The details on the various characters operating in the different districts reveal a great deal of depth about the setting in an almost incidental, yet memorable way. You find out that some of the aelfir don’t agree with the oppressive ways of their kin, that gnolls, who are portrayed by almost everyone else in the setting as savages, are given to being inquisitive and intellectual, but for various reasons still cultivate their savage reputation. There are intelligent corvids the size of drow, and floating sky whales, and a failed interdimensional sub-way system that may end up causing everything to collapse into an alternate dimension.
There is an amazing depth of setting lore touched upon in these chapters, almost always in a way that makes you want to use that lore at the table. Each district has several easy to grasp plot hooks that almost write themselves if the PCs only wander into the district.
Running the Game
The earlier sections of the book make it clear that there can be several difficult topics in the game. It’s based on resisting an oppressive force, and characters are assumed to be members of a revolutionary organization that can easily fall into terrorist tactics. Several of the character types are borderline nihilistic. This tone is addressed in this section, and right at the beginning of the chapter there are discussions about lines and veils and the X Card, as well as the importance of checking in with players.
There is also discussion about turning the dials up and down in the game. While characters may always have to make hard choices to fight for a better future, they may attempt to be more heroic or at least compassionate about their actions. GMs are instructed to consider how evil, alien, or just out of touch they want their aelfir to be.
There are several places where expectations are broken into different stages, such as the usual progression of a story arc, or the questions you should ask when designing a villain. I especially like the sidebar that details what kind of story elements you might expect to be introduced if players pick certain character classes.
There are various appendices in the book detailing new gods, random items and events, a glossary of city slang and terminology, ancient cities that humans have found and what they salvaged from them, antagonists, suggested media, and the best appendix of all, goats native to Spire.
Much like the information in the district chapters, there is a lot of implied setting detail on the random lists, in what special words exist in the setting, and the fact that there are very specific, special goats in the city (some of them are just bursting in arcane energies and are great to sacrifice, and others are really big and probably not good eating).
The section on new gods also provides advances for followers of those gods, allowing for more customization for players that want to go that route. Antagonist don’t provide specific stats (most NPCs just have a set amount of stress they can absorb before being removed from the scene), but there are random tables to see what other factions might get involved in a mission when the PCs are operating on the streets or effecting city level change.
Side Note—Introductory Adventures
I am a huge fan of introductory adventures in core rulebooks. I can’t say that I’m always likely to run them, but I think just seeing the structure of an adventure, as laid out by the game’s creators, often shows a lot about how the game should run.
Spire doesn’t contain an introductory adventure, but there are several products referred to as “campaign frames” available as “pay what you want” digital products at the One Book Shelf sites. The titles currently available are Kings of Silver, Blood and Dust, and Eidolon Sky.
Revolution! The lore is compelling and delivered in gameable sized chunks that make it easy to digest.
There is a ton of lore in this book that is just familiar enough to feel comfortable, and then quickly subverts that comfort zone to make the setting its own unique place. The lore is compelling and delivered in gameable sized chunks that make it easy to digest. The mechanics are new and engaging, but, like the lore involved, the mechanics feel just familiar enough, until they go their own directions. It can be a huge boon to be able to introduce a system where everything, from combat to social climbing to buying and selling, can be introduced in a unified system.
The book has a well-placed and well-written safety section, but topics like cannibalism, terrorism, and oppression may override the wondrous weirdness of potentially living cities, sky whales, and god powered ropes. While the text does a great job of breaking down elements that might be introduced when different character classes are in play, I think a little more discussion of what classes work best together to create different campaign frames may have been helpful as well.
Strongly Recommended—This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.
I think if you have even a passing interest in fantasy settings, the information in this book is going to make for a solid purchase, even if you never use the ruleset. I would never advocate for someone to push themselves into territory where they feel unsafe, but if the themes discussed in this review are within your tolerance, exploring the setting is going to be a joy.
Additionally, the mechanics of stress and fallout are both familiar and combined in a new and exciting fashion, and I think that even people that are a little burned out on fantasy may want to keep an eye on these mechanics and how they managed to promote and resolve story elements.
What are some of the most refreshing fantasy games that you have encountered? What games managed to redefine genres for you? Are you a fan of games that find a way to resolve very different actions in a unified fashion? Let us know below! We would love to hear from you.