One of the benefits of living in a college town is having an active gaming club to which I am occasionally invited. This has been the case with their one shot nights where they ask game masters to pick a game to run one session in order to meet new players or introduce folks to games they might never have heard of or are curious about but unable to commit to a full campaign. For an avid RPG collector whose appetite is bigger than his capacity to play, it’s a great chance to bust out games and give them a whirl and this is exactly what happened with Spire.
Spire is a 2018 game by Christopher Taylor and Grant Howitt published by Rowan, Rook and Decard that has players depicting drow freedom fighters/terrorists whose mile high tower city has been conquered by high elves who subjugate their people through humiliation, servitude, and exploitation. The game makes no bones about the tragic nature of this fight and that any gains the players achieve will come at great cost, either personally or collectively. On the surface this may seem like a dour bummer of a game but like with all things in Spire, the surface is deceiving.
Mechanically this game borrows heavily from Powered by the Apocalypse games with classes coming in playbooks of various powers and abilities and dice rolls usually leading to mixed successes that offer nuanced resolutions instead of clearcut successes or outright failures. Dice pools are assembled based on character skills and domains. Where you choose to carry out your adventures can have just as much an impact as how. Consequences are also spread out between various stats rather than simple hit points. In Spire you can take a blow to your reputation or pocketbook as easily as to your body or sanity and this gives a game master options for how they want to threaten their players and provide them with challenges beyond just trying to beat them into unconsciousness.
The world of Spire is weird. Delightfully so. The city is towering and Babel-esque, filled not just with elves of various hues but humans, gnolls, giant corvids, goblinoid… things, psychic mantis cultists, and even weirder denizens. The whole structure sits atop the pulsating and demonic Heart which provides the setting for Spire’s sister RPG of the same name that swaps out urban heists and political revolution for more familiar if not completely traditional dungeon delving. Algae vats, fungal farms/cemeteries, belching factories, entrepreneurial temples, street theatres, dockside taverns, and a geometrically impossible subway system all jostle and tangle together and provide no shortage of backdrops for the intrigues, assassinations, subversions, or whatever else the players deem necessary to bring about the downfall of their hated enemies and the freedom of their people. Also there’s an entire appendix dedicated to goats.
The secret wonder of Spire is that it is a genuinely funny game. It’s not obvious at first glance but as you read through the setting or look at the different powers players can wield, it becomes very apparent that there is a dark humour that slinks through the game like veins in a rich and pungent cheese. That tension between the dire reality of trying to create political change when society is stacked against you with the humour that can be found in every nook makes this a truly fantastic game.
The core book is more than enough to play but there are a number of additional materials folks can acquire, including a useful GM screen which comes with a conspiracy kit and a deck of NPCs and locations to have at hand as needed. The Magister’s Guide offers up a buffet table of optional rules and enhancements to take or leave. I am particularly fond of the Liberty stat which acts as a communal “hit point” for society at large that goes up and down as players upset the status quo and has impacts on how freely they can move around and carry out their dark deeds.
When I introduced it to the gaming club, I was nervous and apprehensive about how it would be received but within minutes of passing out the character sheets and hearing the genuine joyful laughter and gasps of horror, I knew I had a winner and I look forward to spreading the dark message of Spire with other gamers.