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Spire: The City Must Fall (Spire) is a roleplaying game that heavily relies on its setting. First, it presents a premise that emerges from the titular spire and its politics. This is a mile high tower-city of dark elves now ruled by an Aelfir government. The Drow are oppressed by this government, and the game is generally about how the drow involved in a religious spy network called The Ministry resist this occupation in small clandestine cells. If you would like to learn more about Spire, I advise purchasing the book, or visiting the Rowan, Rook, and Decard discord server. Before we get started, I do want to disclose my methodology. I am drawing on one 14-session campaign of Spire to analyze some aspects of the game. We played the Kings of Silver adventure (which I will not be discussing at length), which I mention in case you can glean some insight that I have missed.

What we Did

For characters, I played an Azurite, and the other players chose to play a Bound, a Lajhan, and an Inksmith. In generic terms, I was a cleric of a commerce god, and my associates were Batman, a Community Cleric, and a Pulp-noir demigod, respectively. Our cell (as two of us were proper Ministers, and the other recruited for the cell but still independent) were directed to destabilize a political power play in motion on one floor of the Spire that was entirely casinos. Throughout our campaign, our two priests and two investigators decided to take an indirect approach to this task. While we could have wined and dined throughout high society and perhaps been fine, our strategy changed when we realized that if we worked through the less powerful people connected to our rivals, then rolls we would have to make would be more likely to succeed. In a way, I suspect we might be guilty of metagaming the fiction in terms of what fallouts might make narrative sense to apply to us. Oh well!

What was Good

The abilities that characters have access to in this game afford incredible narrative control to the players. These abilities are fun, such as being able to know what someone’s greatest desire is, to incredibly powerful, such as being able to appear in any scene the Game Master narrates. Not only is using these abilities incredibly fun, planning on how to coordinate them is electric. The Skills and domains are two sets of boxes to tick. Skills are Verbs and Domains are a kind of contextual element. You add a die to your pool for rolling if you have a skill or domain that applies to the action you’re taking. To me these are the true gems of Spire. It is so interesting to think of how domains imply things about characters (as they outline their comfort or adeptness in a given situation). The cultural institutions that Classes are incorporated into provides a fresh cast of characters to embody and enjoy. This is a fantasy that while at first analogous to traditional archetypes (There is a Knight afterall), is really coming from a different angle entirely. I would argue that it is reductive to compare the Spire classes to your standard adventuring party. They’re so tied to Spire that it’s a different experience. So much of that is owed to the world of Spire being fun. It is strange, it is goofy, and it has room for you to get in.

Critiques

Resistances and Fallout Tests:
If you fail a roll or only find a mixed success, you might not even have to worry about it. Without a complete success, you take stress (of a particular flavour such as Blood, Silver, or Reputation). More dangerous things will roll larger dice to determine how much stress they inflict on your character. Particular Classes will ignore the first few tally marks of a particular resistance (reputable classes have reputation “protection” to reflect this). Once your tally exceeds your protections, you are facing a fallout test whenever you take stress. This fallout test is simply your Game Master trying to roll under the sum of your stress of all kinds. There is a variant rule where stress is only assigned to its own resistance and the Game Master tries to roll under that total to trigger the fallout. There is some reason for this I think: why am I in more danger of being killed by a sword if all I have done is spent a lot of money? Yet after playing Spire I would not pass up the immediacy of the original rule. I simply do not fear fallout as I once did. It comes, it passes (if you can imagine how to handle it), and you carry on with play. Again, at the start I was very attentive to the risk of moderate fallout. That risk felt very real. Then after I received one, cleared stress, and handled it after the mission I started acting more boldly. This reaction leads me to recognize that Fallouts are not unified as punishments, they also share a space with the fiction moving forward. It’s not that they uniformly escalate the stakes either, sometimes they feel like sidequests that characters go off to resolve. Either way, if you want interesting things to happen in Spire, keep pushing. It’s often when you don’t take the minor or moderate fallout and find yourself in range of Severe fallout that things get dicey, but Spire is already gating these moves behind the fallout test so when I came to these points, I chose to push forwards anyways.

On Inevitability and Pumping the Brakes

The pacing of Spire is beholden to Stress and Fallout, the progression of tension that they describe gives Spire a consistent theme through a mechanical design. Sometimes it is overbearing and runs up against how the players and game master want to tell a story. If the Game Master wants to impose something on a player character, they have to wait until that character takes a fallout. Spire is distinct in that it stands apart from other games with this. Whereas consulting the result of a dice roll is when a Game Master begins to interact with the fiction, in Spire they must wait for the Fallout Test. At its best, these rules expedite deciding on a consequence to picking one from a list. At its worst, it is getting in the way.

On the Structural Impositions of Fallouts

I think I get what fallouts have to offer, and why some GMs that have run Resistance games for me have expressed their dissatisfaction with them. Let’s take an example of a fallout from Spire: “Arrested.” In some ways I think that this is fallouts at their best. I received it after failing a fallout test that followed taking shadow stress, so it represents things going wrong as my clandestine actions attracted suspicion. How did I resolve an arrest warrant? These are really up to the player to take the initiative and figure out how to resolve (and thus clear) it. If this were a Blood fallout, I could visit a bond who was a doctor (and get stitched up, medicated, etc.) and so it follows that a Spire character could also meet with a character who could reduce an Arrested Fallout. Game logic is imposing an opportunity for the player to establish a narrative solution. I used an “acquisition” (a sort of downtime move from The Magisters Guide Sourcebook) to reduce the Arrested fallout (which I fled via zipline btw) to a Wanted Fallout, which was then resolved not by my character being taken in, but simply with a conversation with a captain of the guard off the books and in a hellish abandoned subway tunnel. That is to say, Fallouts are not always paired with a way to “solve them” for a player, especially if they’re only reading their character abilities and relying on the GM to offer a suggestion. I would presume that people understand the A to B of seeking medical expertise for healing, but players might not be familiar with who to go to if they need to de-escalate an arrest warrant (especially given Spire’s anti-authoritarian bend). What to do with this? When I run Spire, I plan to slip in one NPC that could be sought out to assist with handling these things.

Relative to other Games

I think that Powered by the Apocalypse games have conditioned a great deal of us to understand the “mixed success” in a particular way. Personally, coming off of Dungeons and Dragons (3.5, 4th, and 5th edition) to the mixed success was interesting because a mixed success could mean the Game Master could change the fiction via an element not connected to the initial scope of the roll’s concern. This kind of misdirection, where rolls can affect things for ill that players are not directly engaged with or capable of manipulating, really sold me on PbtA games; I have always thought this quirk was neat. Forged in the Dark haunts Spire. Difficulty for rolls in Spire are Risky, which removes one die from the pool before it is rolled, or Dangerous which removes two. This is similar to the Blades metric, where players and antagonists square up to determine who is more powerful in the moment, and the Game Master determines the player characters positioning as desperate, risky, or controlled. Both are concerned with determining how the player stands against their task, but Blades will explain this in how poorly things will turn out, or how little of an impact an action will have. Spire will just make that action more unlikely to succeed; the outcome is regulated the size of the stress die and the likeliness of the Fallout test. Returning to Resistance Games, the infliction of stress onto characters is a consistent punishment to players and seems so punishing as to justify restricting the GM from making any other narrative moves against the player characters. It is precisely that the scope of the fallout (which may or may not even happen) always connects to the most recent threat to the character that we miss out on this misdirection, and with that the Game Master is locked out from an affordance these other story game heavy-weights: the ability to massage the narrative. If you would like to run a game where the system handles the pacing, and contributes to a consistent tone, then Spire can do that. If you want to slip in to add something to a scene, spurred by the moment, you will have to circumvent the rules which your players might not think is fair.

Conclusion

I will probably end up running Spire for friends, but it is not my new game to run period. Spire is something I will take on when I do not really want to get too involved in the narrative. The fallout system is oddly robust enough for its size that I can just resign myself to filling in consequences like its a form, and more energy can be spent to hamming it up as a goofy NPC. I do not think I will be hacking the Resistance toolbox as is. I plan on waiting to see how FATHOM or Case & Soul develop before proceeding. The fallout system as a narrative pacing aid is not really to my design tastes, but I am interested in how it can model taking damage and checking for critical hits. In the end, I want to emphasize something I said at the beginning: the world building of Spire is phenomenal. Honestly, I would attributed my enjoyment of the game to the act of playing someone who lived there; for that experience alone I think you should check out Spire.


in reply to @Scampir's post:

fathom's attempts to tie SBR systems back to FITD elements really fascinates me, and i've been considering something similar for an SBR game i've had in mind about psychic detectives in a new weird/neonoir setting. the thing i think works about the fallout system is that it has a very explosive pacing -- whereas FITD and PBTA games flow from player to gm to player, sbr is choppy in a way that fits the unsettling nature of the surrealist and horror genres that these games tend to be made in.

the counterpoint to this is having a library of fallouts to draw from rather than the flexibility to generate original consequences feels like it can take away from that, even if it's useful for gms...it's an interesting conundrum to try and solve! i've been considering an approach similar to base blades', where what i try to do is think of every lever on the character sheet and make each a category of fallout — skills, domains, protection, etc. — with a final category for "complications" that allows for narrative twists like being arrested. haven't had nearly the time to even get it drafted, though, so who knows if it'll work; either way, it's a system that fascinates me almost because i struggle with it.

I had to rewrite this comment like 4 times but I think that's a sign that I really appreciate your insight. Forgive me if it's too long (I think it's too long). Some things that makes fallouts in blades tricky imo:

I think people might struggle with working Fallouts into Blades harm when considering how either is deployed (Spire is building up and FitD is burning out). While Spire's explosions come from those close calls coming too close, FitD has a price to resist and a clear end point. I would argue that there is a safety in FitD in that things can only spin so far out of control. I don't think this is the case in Spire. I think TBTWK and Case & Soul are going in the right direction to lock out different FitD actions; seeing as roll results can already reduce the effect of certain actions so the upgrade to locking actions out on a per-character basis makes sense. Locking actions is good at imitating the post-fallout experience in FitD language (though , but the delivery method for narrative change in either FitD on the scale we enjoy in fallouts seems like it needs its own clock. And if we're ticking clocks to impose a narrative change for a particular character, then doesn't that contradict the sudden appearance of the fallout? I think a big reason fallouts get away with their impacts because of the fallout test. The fallout test cleverly obscures the Game Master from any kind of adversarial involvment imo. "People signed up for this" etc. In Blades the mechanics are used to negotiate everything, from choosing an action, determining P+E, and resisting consequences. The GM is very involved. I expect that GM involvement might clash with the severity of fallouts happening. Maybe the opening here is when you're stressed out but refuse to leave the scene and fallouts are going to be the lingering consequences that remind the table how bad of an idea it was to stick around (How would we get characters there sooner?)

great review! something I've been mulling over lately is, I've seen the idea that fallout is the only opportunity for the gm to act in spire/heart come up a bunch of times, but I'm not sure that's the intent of the texts. codifying gm action as discrete moves is a design principle in apocalypse world (and some other pbta games go further and actually comprehensively specify all the conditions that trigger a gm move) - I think mainly as a way to push GM's away from a prevalent tradition of adversarial play. so I wonder whether that's also a way that pbta has conditioned players to universalize a particular design solution?

Thank you! Could you explain what you mean by "not sure that's the intent of the texts"? From what I have read of Spire, it's quite clear that the GM is only brought in to describe consequences to actions either when interpreting what accumulating stress looks like in the fiction of the game, or when deciding how to implement fallout. If there's an element of Spire where GMs are providing consequences to actions that aren't using rolls, stress, and fallouts, I do want to check that out.

this is very interesting! first, it's possible I'm just fully misinterpreting an aspect of these games, it's happened before and was the inspiration for a major departure from resistance RAW in a hack I'm working on. And I'm definitely in the minority, most people I've seen engage with the system have also felt that gm action is constrained in this way. But I'll share my perspective, and let me know what you think-

(oh also, because tone doesn't come across in text, and because I'm relatively new on here, I want to explicitly say I'm really enjoying this conversation, and hope you are too :) )

My history with tabletop is that I was first introduced to games where gm action is codified or constrained as a critical design response to existing playstyles that heavily relied on gm fiat. I think there was a feeling that games which said, "ultimately, use whatever rules suit your table, just have fun ;)" was kind of a cop-out that placed too much burden on the gm and encouraged bad gm behaviour, and that it was better to design games more tightly to formally describe gm actions as part of play.

So for example, the way apocalypse world describes MC moves is very much, in tone and content, these are the circumstances in which you can make a move, this is the exhaustive list of moves you can make, these are the agenda items you are allowed to work towards and no other: "there's a million ways to GM games; Apocalypse world calls for one way in particular. This chapter is it. Follow these as rules. The rest of the game is built on this."

I think this model of constraint on GM action has been hugely productive and influential, both for me personally, and for many other game designers and players. But generally, my feeling is that tabletop games could be anything, and in order to understand existing games on their own terms, I've had to examine where I've brought in general playstyles I've unconsciously adopted from other games.

looking at heart and spire, I'm having difficulty finding textual evidence that constrains gm actions only to interpreting consequences from stress and fallout. Instead, I'm finding stuff like "the final important rule for story games . . . is that there simply aren't rules for everything. In fact, there aren't rules for most things. That means you'll be making a lot of adjudications ad hoc as you progress through the game. . . . There are many, many different schools of thought on how to be a better gamemaster. . . . Crucially, none of them are right and none of them are wrong. You'll find your feet after a few sessions regarding what you enjoy and what works best for you and your group" (heart 107).

And in spire, an interesting note on gm action outside of stress/fallout: “When the players succeed, that means that a) someone will get in trouble for it and b) someone more powerful than them will be upset, and potentially take action. . . . You don’t have to play your hand right away, but if you do something, you should show a knock-on effect that it has – or describe events that none of the characters can see, but that add complexity to the narrative by the players knowing about them.

stuff like this, as well has having listened a bit to the authors describe games they've gm'ed, leads me to think the intent is slightly skewed towards a looser, more fiat-involved style of gm'ing compared to pbta, which might address some of the problem I've seen where gms feel constrained by the fallout list, but might also introduce its own problems along the lines of what apocalypse world and other games were pushing against in the first place - not enough structure or support for the role of the gm.

Something else I’m really curious about - why do you think heart and spire gms tend not to make up their own fallouts? I also tend not to do this. Is it just that the list disincentivises the slower process of making your own? also lol sorry for the very long response

Ok! First, I think the vibes are good in this comment thread :) On length, you might want to share my post with your own comments or @ me in your own post if we continue this discussion. The Comments are approaching a thinness that will make it difficult to read.

Next, just to square the relationship we’re talking about, it’s about GMs relying on rules or “fiat,” which imo is important to bring in here. My stance on rules vs fiat in games is that, if I rely on fiat then I am going to question why I am using a set of rules in particular. Ultimately, I’m trying to articulate how stress/fallout structures how people experience play (with a focus on the GM in this review)

So, the scope of my review is just Spire, not Heart, not other sbtr games, and not what has been said in discords, interviews, or blogs. I’m sure you could question my methodology to understand stress/fallout by not going beyond spire, but again my claims are about stress/fallout in Spire and not elsewhere. I’m writing more as a playtester than a co-designer here. I’m not here to build a brand on how good of a designer I am.

That said, my textual evidence is on pages 9 and 11 of the second printing (pdf): "Only roll if the character has something to lose, which is represented by marking stress" and "Work out what happens based on the type of stress that triggered the fallout.” Your point from the GM section is wrapped up in setting up events that happen after the players complete their objectives; this is outside the scope of stress/fallout which I think is a smoking gun for what I have identified about stress/fallout: It is because the GM is being pushed out of the moment to moment development of the narrative that their opportunity to move pieces around has to happen outside of rolls. I’m trying to be critical of this not to complain about it, but to describe the way it structures a GM’s experience with the game. Maybe I should have gone beyond Spire and written about liberty fallout from the Magisters Guide! That uses fallout to automate the pacing and decision making for the GM to determine the way the world reacts to the Ministries actions.

And that automation of the fiction that displaces the GM is my point here. It’s also how I think of fallouts and why people just take options off the list. The stakes are so high that GMs will lean on the rules as a neutral object agreed upon for use by the players (the idea being we all signed up to play the game with this book). The picklist of fallouts are tied to the worldbuilding and are so accessible that it’s probably not worth the time trying to figure out a custom fallout that’s quickly interpreted as fair. That said, I’ll have a better idea on this in particular after I actually run Spire.

yeah, I understand what you and ToppleThrones are saying about the distance or automation between consequence and fiction. I wonder if there's something here about like, individual gm preferences for 'pace' of consequences? which isn't something that I've thought abt before.

anyway thanks for chatting w me about this, it's been really helpful in thinking through some stuff!

Hey, I was the GM of this Spire game! So, to speak a little more about that, I've always found moves more of a way to categorize/pin down a thing that already happens in an attempt to guide play for new GMs more than "this is the list of things you can do," so I've never really found them 'conditioning' in the way that you mean. If anything's conditioned me it's position/effect from Blades, rather than the idea of specific codified moves/outcomes.

I definitely still made moves, so to speak, which is to say, the world responded to player action outside of fallouts, particularly on failures. That's just part of playing any sort of game, to me. An example of this would be that one of the players was leading the way through an underground facility and failed their roll, and so I ambushed the party, because the stakes of the roll were whether they could get through quickly enough to avoid their foes getting the drop on them. They failed, so their foes got the drop on them!

What's more the case was for the particularly big swings: Sometimes I had ideas for things that would happen on a failure that were momentous enough that they would definitely qualify as fallout. In a fitd game, I'd make that sort of consequence a clock, or at least a desperate consequence. In Spire, my equivalent to that is the stress die being particularly big. But the roll for stress, and the roll for fallout after, adds some real variance to what the outcome could be. I'm generally cool with that, particularly if it's a delayed outcome! Where my frustrations particularly came from was if I had a specific fallout in mind, and the player didn't get it, and the fiction moved on, they still have all this stress that was the build-up to the fallout they were going to take, and the next time they take stress the fiction will likely have changed significantly enough that what I had in mind is no longer relevant, but the ghost of what it would have been is still there and will affect the next fallout roll, which is now going to be about something completely different and might just have been like, a 1d3 stress roll which in my head is more of a 'controlled consequence.'

This is all partly my fault because I have Bladesbrain, and should have kept more in mind the Sword of Damocles that was a player having high stress, but sometimes the level of consequence that could have come out of something more insignificant in the narrative was just truly difficult for me to wrap my head around. Maybe I should have guided the fiction more in a way that kept things at the appropriate level of stakes for the stress level characters were at? But to me that's sort of hard/high-concept to manage and the point of fallout is its spontaneity I think.

Hope this helps!

yeah this is great, thank you. the distance that's created between stress and consequence, versus pbta/blades which proc a consequence immediately on mixed success, is something I've been struggling with as well! And it's weird right, if you have an idea for something big to happen on a failure, does it start to feel unfair to the player to impose it if they don't actually take fallout... both pbta and fitd/blades are a bit more flexible on the gm side in terms of letting you progress from soft to hard moves based on your judgement - also you never have to explicitly categorize or justify a hard move versus a soft move to the players, whereas with stress and fallout, everything is out in the open, which feels like it could give a lot less flexibility.

I'm also trying to figure out if this the tension created by having a meter that ticks up (as opposed to the quicker, slighter tension and release of roll-->succeed/fail-->consequence) necessarily has to feel bad? Because heart and spire are horror/thriller games, ostensibly, but I'm interested in what other genres or moods the mechanics could be turned to.