Spire: The City Must Fall, or, “Menzoberranzan Writes Back”

I am probably late to the party on this, but just this past week I discovered the game Spire: The City Must Fall. It looked absolutely fascinating, so I threw myself into it and read the entire book cover to cover, and now I have thoughts about it.

I have not yet played the game, though I’m already scheduling one-shots to kick the tyres a bit and see how this bad boy works in practice. The book itself clocks in at 220 pages and is gorgeously illustrated by Adrian Stone. I bought the PDF. It is published by the London-based Rowan, Rook, and Decard Ltd. and written and designed by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor.

Spire is a game about drow elves. The drow live in the city known as Spire, an impossible pile of buildings that reaches towards the stars. A proper hive city. It used to belong to the drow, but two hundred years ago an invader came, and their rule was overthrown, and they are now the underclass, the dregs of society. That invader was the aelfir, or the high elves. To earn the right to live in Spire, a drow must do a period of indentured servitude known as the durance. Perhaps they will serve in the army of the expansionist aelfir, perhaps in the city guard to oppress their fellow drow. Perhaps they will be servants to the high elves.

Whatever their profession or background, all player characters belong to the Ministry, a quasi-religious revolutionary conspiracy. Their goal: to overthrow the rule of the aelfir and restore Spire to the drow.

To start with, a word on the ruleset. The system looks like an cousin of Blades in the Dark. This is not a generic system. There’s character classes, which are woven deeply into the world of the game. There’s the Knight, which is a fighter class, but also the member of a drunken and disorderly chivalric order, who can glance at the room and instantly determine who to pick a fight with in order to create a distraction or impress people. There’s the Midwife, who’s the caretaker and defender of drow eggs (!) and gets weird spider abilities. The Firebrand is a revolutionary who eventually becomes to embody the anger of the people. Each class has a couple of abilities they get at the beginning, and advances that are grouped into Low, Medium, and High. There is no level or experience system as such, but the characters gain advances as they effect change in the Spire. In addition to the ultimately finite lists of advances from their class, the characters can also pick advances from the lists of specific organizations, or related to their durance. The system is lightweight but the characters seem very customizable.

The basic resolution system is elegant. You roll a small dice pool of d10s – possibly as few as one – and the highest one counts. There’s degrees of success. You can fail bad, just fail, succeed at cost, succeed, and succeed really well. Failures and success at cost inflict stress. The durability of your character in Spire is measured by stress and resistance, and there are five types of resistance. Blood measures your physical durability and is basically your hit points – you fuck up in combat, you usually get Blood stress. The other resistances measure your finances, mental stability and wellbeing, cover identities and secrecy, and local reputation. As stress accumulates, the GM rolls stress tests and failing one of these results in fallout, which comes in minor, medium, and severe. The fallouts are narrative. Severe fallouts may result in death. A minor Blood fallout might be “bleeding”, a medium one “broken arm”, and a severe one “dying”, which gives the character a choice of either doing one final action with bonus dice, or trying to desperately cling to life, losing something vital in the bargain. I like this system. Character death in Spire feels like a thing that happens and should happen, and the character creation seems light enough that creating a new one even at a higher level doesn’t feel like a drag.

The setting, then. I’d describe the world as “weird fantasy”. While the drow are definitely D&D, the city of the Spire is a closer relation to China Miéville’s New Crobuzon than Waterdeep or Menzoberranzan. The book itself acknowledges as much. It’s a fallen world, littered with the detritus of a bygone precursor civilization that the humans have reverse-engineered to bring about their own industrial revolution that hasn’t quite percolated all the way to the elven lands. Spire is a backwater metropolis beset by social issues and religious strife. There’s high weirdness in the city, such as the Vermissian, a subway system that was never finished, whose tunnels interact with strangely with the quaint notion of three-dimensional space, and where odd creatures roam, and whose maintenance ways lead to the Vermissian library.

Spire does not entirely make sense, and is famously unmappable (okay, there is a map, but it’s one of those that more suggests “here there be cool shit and also dragons” than telling you where place A is in relation to place B), which means the GM doesn’t need to worry about where whatever they want to put there would actually fit. There’s competing academies and universities, and “it is hard to find a school that isn’t a recruitment agency for a dark cult, insidious conspiracy or apocalypse cabal, so students in the know do their best to learn what they can and get out before they’re roped into murdering a city official or sacrificing a blind gutterkin on an altar of the hungry deep” (p. 81), and cults practising air burial, and the sky docks where megacorvidae soar and skywhales bring wares from distant lands. Hidden gnolls lurk in the slums, something dire lives in one of the algae vats, and down in Red Row, Brother Hellion’s Church of the Gun congregates and worships.

It’s a delight to read, has its own voice, and sets a unique tone that fires up the imagination to come up with more.

The relationship between Spire and New Crobuzon does not stop with the weird fantasy, but extends to the thematic level. The astute reader may have picked up by now that it’s what might be described as “explicitly political”. The entire setup is basically a postcolonial critical reading of D3 Vault of the Drow. The classic D&D drow is a sadistic, evil, hypersexualized monster of a person, who’s also by the way black, in contrast to the white, noble, cultured and good high elves. This is kinda, you know, racist (and the art in Spire leans into this – instead of white hair, the drow here are black-haired and sport dreadlocks, cornrows and undercuts). Spire is a reading of this against the grain, the classic D&D drow a creature of aelfir propaganda. Another inspiration that the game lists is Discworld, and this is the only place I’ve seen where the influence of Pratchett is the anger. (My own additions to its Appendix N would be Warren Ellis’s superlative comic book Transmetropolitan, which has become more and more relevant every damn election cycle ever since it was released in 1997, and Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, for its depiction of low-tech counter-intelligence in action.)

The setting and setup of the game are a juicy commentary on oppression and colonization. The institutions of higher learning are controlled by the high elves, but is anything they teach about the drow true? Are they even the same species? While even during their durance a drow is legally a person and not property, the injustice and economic implications of the system are complicated. Oh, and the drow Home Nations are embroiled in a brutal civil war and refugees are streaming into the city. The worship of some of the drow gods has been banned, driving their faithful underground and radicalizing them.

Spire is also harsh about the life of the resistance fighter. From the point of view of the high elves, or even the ordinary drow on the Blue Market omnibus, they are a terrorist organization. Though the top-level setup of colonizer vs. colonized is black and white enough, on the practical level it becomes a grey muddle of who you can trust, how far are you willing to go and what is the personal cost of the struggle. The characters are not murderhoboes but have relationships with NPCs, who may (will) end up hurt in the course of the revolution. The game states up front that your character will die, the Ministry itself and their own families will sell them out when they become liabilities, and the best they can hope is to become the bastards in charge.

And sure, you can play Spire without getting all political about it and just run it like it was released by Ubisoft. This, to be fair, is probably how it’ll mostly get played and how I would also run it in, say, a convention setting with a collection of random players. The deeper level is there, though, and it’s explicit about it.

I really have only a single, minor quibble. That quibble is languages. Though the Azurite class has two different advances that deal with language acquisition, Spire is remarkably coy about what languages there are actually spoken in the city. The information that aelfir speak their own language and have trouble communicating with ordinary citizens is squirrelled away in the glossary appendix, and all other mentions of language in the book are of occult, dead and some cases executed, forgotten and forbidden tongues, which are not really the purview of the merchant-priest Azurites. I feel this is also significant because when you’re running an insurrection and counter-intelligence operations, who can understand what language is very important – do they need an interpreter, can they be compromised, and so on. It’s possible the setting book Strata or the crypto sourcebook Secrets Kept from the Sun go into more detail on this, but really, a couple of paragraphs in the corebook would’ve gone a long way.

And that’s it. Spire is one of the strongest games I’ve picked up in recent years. The system is elegant and fast to pick up despite the amount of character options, the city of Spire is delightfully weird and offbeat, and the game has a clear, bold vision in critical dialogue with established tropes of the genre. It dares to get POLITICS IN MUH GAMES, and I respect that (of course it helps that I agree with those politics). Most importantly, it does this in an accessible way. Spire is an ambitious work but unlike many such role-playing games, especially from the storygame side of things, it doesn’t demand that from the players.

If my dance card wasn’t full for the year, I’d look into kicking off a campaign.

Oh, and about those spiders…

The comments, of course, are moderated.

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