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.
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.
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.