Reviewing games can be difficult at times. Enjoyment is subjective and while we try our best to be objective, our opinions and tastes ultimately decide how we get on with a game. Which leads me to the strange journey of reviewing Spire.
Ever since first coming across Spire at the UK Games Expo last year, I’ve been fascinated. The bold colours of the artwork and the detail of the setting make for exactly the kind of RPG I like to read. When the designers told me that the game was about being part of a secret drow rebellion against cruel high elves, I knew I needed to play it.
For the past few months, I’ve been poring over the books, absorbing the weird and wonderful world of Spire. And from reading alone I can attest that the world is incredibly detailed yet not so much as to require memorisation. The designers have put great effort into making sure each district feels unique and presents a wide variety of ideas for events and missions in the potential GM’s mind. Coupled with the sections on culture, drugs, Drow words, religions, and other weird parts of the city really ground the world in reality.
Even the classes are packed full of unique and interesting ideas. From the vermissian sages with their ability to step out of reality and into the libraries hidden away in the out-of-phase tunnels of the vermissian train system to the bound, athletic vigilantes that keep small gods in all their items. The designers put so many fantastic ideas into the game and create such varied playstyles for the players.
Unfortunately though, like I said at the beginning, enjoyment is subjective and while many people like George Orwell’s 1984, we were never fans. The designers of Spire however seem to have drawn a lot of inspiration from Winston Smith’s hopless rebellion and make it clear that you are disposable to the rebellion, that your family will betray you if they find out, that you will not win the rebellion, and that you will die. Which, when your group is much more Star Wars than Game of Thrones, makes it difficult to get it to the table. They eventually agreed though it sadly turned out that one player had forgotten what game it was…
In the world of Spire, practically everyone wants to kill you. Either for religious reasons, plain dislike, to rob you, eat you, cause their bored, or because they’re some strange cosmic force and you got too near. As is intended it breeds paranoia and hate. It wants you in that 1984 mindset of us versus them which put our resident peacemaker in great distress. Having to view things in the black and white mindset of an extremist was so at odds with their preferred playstyle and world view that the whole game was uncomfortable. Our time with it ended with that player holding a gun to the head of an aelfir foreman and just being unable to continue with the roleplay.
Spire starts with a note that everyone you kill in the game is a person, a bad person but a person nonetheless. And that sort of thing clearly goes down well with many groups. Just look at the runaway success of it’s standalone sequel Heart or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It can be fun to watch bad people do bad things to bad people. I assume that’s why people like Geordie Shore.
Personally, I can handle and enjoy a bit of hoplessness and grit (though 1984 still remains a god-awful book in my honest opinion). The setting, while bleak and cruel, didn’t seem that bad to me. The thing that brought Spire down for me was the ‘core mechanic’. When attempting anything with a chance of failure, the players roll 1D10 (a ten sided die) for the relevant skill. Another 1D10 if they have the relevant domain (location type e.g. academia, low society). And another if they have mastery. Success starts at 6-7 but at this level players still take on stress, marks against their various stats that eventually lead to long term effects. This meant that every step forward on a plan was tinged with failure. Coupled with the lack of direction for what to do if players take intelligent steps to lower the risk and our interaction with the world felt completely dependent on the roll of the dice. Players could use their special powers which are cool and interesting and unique but the constant punishment felt contrary to our collective experience with roleplaying. Maybe this is the effect of the Apocalypse engine I’ve heard so much about yet played so little of.
Which puts me in a difficult position as I still love the setting of Spire. The world is fascinating and very well thought out. The descriptions are evocative (if a little purple in some sections), the items wonderous, and the threats genuinely skin crawling. If it was a novel, I’d recommend the heck out of it (as long as it doesn’t end like 1984) but as a game, I’m not a fan. Maybe if I hacked it into another system?
As a quick post-article note- The supplement book Strata has a class that is essentially a pulp author/journalist who gets a power to summon an armed stranger into a scene which is wonderful.