This week, I finished up a four-session arc of duets using Spire: The City Must Fall by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor. This is my third time running Spire, and there is a lot about the game I love. The writing is top-notch, the setting is rich with conflicts and status quos that just beg for player meddling. On the larger scale of the episodes and overall “season,” the system delivers. However I have, over and over, tripped over the game’s core resolution mechanic.
After engaging with the concepts of options and order of operations that came up in the recent Kinfolk consulting session, I found some issues clicking for me. I have some ideas that I think could potentially make Spire‘s resolution a lot more engaging and generative.
As background, Spire is a game about Drow oppressed by high elves (termed aelfir) in a mile-high city called Spire. PCs play covert dark elf revolutionaries in the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, bringing the fight for freedom to the high elves at great risk to themselves.
This is the first time this player and I have gamed together. He created a wonderfully broken Drow named Schlick Malrique as his Minister. Shlick’s a Shadow Agent, blessed (or cursed) by the Goddess with the ability to inhabit multiple faces and personalities, recently escaped from a year of deep cover in the cannibalistic cult The Faithful of King Teeth, trying to reconnect with his sister Charlotte (also a Minister) even as his Magister (the Ministry’s term for its handlers) throws him into the meatgrinder again.
Spire‘s overall loop is quite transparent: Each character has five Stress tracks (Blood, Mind, Shadow, Reputation, Silver) representing different types of risk, and these are summed into a running ‘total Stress’ score. As they move through the world, characters take Stress in amounts defined by the riskiness of their actions (1, D3, D6, D8) and their success on rolls. The GM tracks Stress.
When a character suffers Stress, the GM rolls 1d10 and compares the result to their total Stress score. If it’s lower than the character’s total Stress score, the character clears some stress and takes Fallout: ongoing consequences that are more severe the higher the character’s total Stress score.
For those who are counting, that is three layers of randomness between a character acting and taking Fallout: Success on the action, amount of Stress is rolled, how the GM’s Fallout check goes. This works well for playing stories about marginalized fantasy folx in a colonized city—Sometimes, you’ll do something daring and get away scott-free, others, it’s that one dinky point of Stress that seals your fate.
On the macro level, the loop is merciless. Actions incur Stress, Stress creates Fallout, and Fallout creates increasingly complex sources of Stress. The player-facing principles in the introduction are not lying when they say: “You are brave. You are going to hurt people. This is going to kill you.” When you’re marginalized, being exposed to chaos without support networks is a fact of life.
What gives the Ministers a chance is their access to class-specific magical abilities, keyed (Runequest-style) to different cults and organizations in the city. The class ability trees are the beating heart of the game. Divided, like Unknown Armies Magick, into Low, Medium, and High Advances, they are deeply integrated with specific locations and people in the city, and often create wonderful little dilemmas and situational wrinkles when put into use. They also provide some, not many, “Free Slots” in certain Resistances, giving characters a little breathing room between themselves and Fallout when playing to their strengths.
The choice of new Advances is, in my opinion, the most expressive component of the game, particularly when players get into multiclassing. Magical powers are always communal knowledge that binds a character more tightly to the society around them, or forbidden blasphemies that push them away. Each choice reveals where a character has been and where they want to go.
When played with an eye toward the principles of Story Now, the Stress and class systems sing.
However, the procedure that tethers these systems to concrete situations has proven a constant stumbling-block for me. Every action in the game is resolved like this:
—The GM sets the Difficulty of the action (0-2), each Difficulty rating reducing a player’s pool by 1.
—The player builds a pool of D10s. They start with 1 ‘free’ D10 (that frequently gets taken away by difficulty/disadvantage).
—They add 1d10 if they have a relevant Skill,
…1d10 if a relevant Domain applies (an Academic character gets a bonus when acting like a tweed-wearing scholar, interacting with a college security guard, or being in a campus environment),
…1d10 if they have Mastery from a magical ability or a Knack (an enhanced Skill that applies in specific circumstances).
—The GM decides which Stress track the player is risking damage to, and also how much (1, D3, D6, D8).
—The player rolls and reads the highest value shown. On a 1-5, the character fails the action and suffers Stress. On a 5-7, they succeed but still suffer Stress. On an 8-10, they succeed and escape Stress.
At the game’s ideal table, I think the players are supposed to look at their Skills, Domains, and sources of Mastery as inspiration and use them to assemble interesting ‘verbs.’ However, I have never seen players actually assemble dice pools this way. For one, there are only nine Skills in the game. They are extremely broad (Fight, Sneak, etc.), and beginning PCs start limited enough that they generally only have one, maybe two avenues of competence available. The Domain list is also very small (nine again). And ordinarily, the Domain is out of the players’ hands. Is your clothing, manner, and speech High or Low Society? Is the person you’re talking to from the Crime or Order Domain?
What ends up happening is that players talk about what they’re doing, with their Skill being glaringly obvious, and then the GM runs through their relevant Domains. It can be exhausting to GM, because you’re responsible for a fairly intensive resolution procedure (building part of the die pool, adjusting it for difficulty, evaluating which Stress is risked, and how much).
I’ve been thinking, in my own inchoate designs, about how to distribute as many of the expressive mechanics as possible to as many players as possible. I’ve also been thinking about the concept of ‘order of operations’ that came up in the recent Kinfolk consulting session. I have some ideas that I think could potentially make Spire’s core resolution a lot more engaging and generative for the players, while making the division of labor more equal.
The most expressive step of Spire’s core resolution system is determining the Stress at risk. Choosing this can be wonderfully fun, deeply creative, and very subtle: “Yeah, you’d think that getting punched by this Drow bouncer would be Blood stress, but she’s really popular in the neighborhood, and this is actually about disentangling from the fight without looking like a bully and taking a Reputation hit.”
When you start to experiment with mixed Stress, it’s even better: “Ordinarily, this would be D6 Blood stress, but you’re cut up and bleeding evidence all over the place. You’re risking D3 Blood and D3 Shadow.”
I’m thinking now about how a hack of Spire might use basically identical steps, but tinker with the order of operations and who performs them. Here’s my idea for how I want to run Spire next time:
—The player keeps track of their own Stress totals.
—At the beginning of each scene as part of framing, the GM declares the factors that are out of players’ control:
….Set the base Stress for a scene,
….declare any built-in Difficulty,
….declare the Domains that are in play.
Interacting with a solitary, malnourished ghoul in Derelictus? D3 stress, 0 Difficulty, Occult or Low Society Domains. Inside a high-security aelfir jail? D8 stress, 2 Difficulty, Order and High Society Domains.
—The player declares which Stress(es) they’re risking and describes their action: “Outsmarting the Derelictus ghoul should be simple for a clever Azurite like me, but if I’m not careful, getting the smell out of my robes could cost me D3 Silver Stress.”
—GM adjusts the Difficulty if the player’s action or preparation alters the situation significantly (Honeyed words and a lovingly detailed cover might lower the Difficulty for the aelfir jail, for instance).
—Player and GM build the die pool, and the player rolls.
I hope this allows Spire players to risk their Stress strategically and thematically. They aren’t forced to be creative all the time. There is usually an obvious Stress for a given action: Magic wears down Mind, fighting damages your Blood.
But my hope is that this new order of operations opens up possibilities for those surprising, thematic uses of Stress, and places expressive options in the players’ grasping, outgunned hands.
10 responses to “New Operations in Spire: The City Must Fall”
Fangs bared in the lamplight
Hi Noah! I wrote a response, and then decided it was way too savage. I rewrote it only to discover it had become surgical as well as savage.
So, um … the question is whether you want it? If so, then this turns into a sort of consulting exchange concerning your inchoate design ideas, which is fine, I'm not saying it should become a formal consulting arrangement, but I'd enter into that frame of mind. You may or may not want that.
If not, then I'd like to focus more on the specific fiction you and player(s) encountered and made with Spire. Basically, "what happened," without too much emphasis on the mechanics at this point. Characters, situations, outcomes – not as a journalistic step by step explanation, but as an overview from an interested audience perspective.
Let me know which seems most fun for this post.
Hi Ron. First off, thank you
Hi Ron. First off, thank you so much for asking before presenting your critique to me—from my time as a teacher, I know what a difference that makes.
I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts. The savagery shouldn't sting too much, as this hack is not as close to my heart as other (daydreamed) designs, more a thought experiment to try to wrestle with a game I have spent huge amounts of time reading, appreciating, and examining.
And I would appreciate the clinical perspective. I'm still very early in the process of learning and applying the design principles that underpin the discussions here at Adept Play. I'd rather get the surgery now and go through recovery before I commit to a design in earnest.
If you like, I can add another comment with an overview of the specific fiction we encountered and produced, too? There was a lot more "what happened" in the post originally. The design questions were more interesting to me at that time and so cut quite a bit to keep it focused.
Well, here goes
About your proposed modification, I am a little bit confused because you keep saying “scene” but your incidental or descriptive phrases all imply that you determine the variables during a scene, i.e., within play-as-played, at the transition from not-rolling-dice to rolling-dice-time. Can you clarify that part for me?
Your summary of the Spire resolution mechanics is all too familiar to me, characteristic of the current self-designated indie design circle jerk. I’m not talking about style or preference; it’s straightforward bad design. You’re not going to be able to tweak it.
For contrast, consider The Pool, in which the GM provides Gift Dice (0-3) with little or no overt or specific justification, the player gets to use dice equal to the rating of the single trait they’re using, and the player can allocate (and risk) as many as they want from their pool.
It’s fast. You barely even notice the distinction among those three things, the people just do their jobs and the dice are ready to be rolled as fast as it takes to pick them up. Nothing has to be negotiated or understood; e.g., the player doesn’t get to know how many Gift dice are involved before deciding to enter into the mechanics.
Note especially, one trait, not “as many as apply.” As I like to explain, yes, your character is using any and all that they’ve got to succeed, but this is the one the writer and artist chose to showcase in that particular panel.
Given a single trait to identify, all the usual gab and distraction of whether it applies is negated. That discusion usually doesn’t happen at all. [It is possible, but at most, and rarely, typically just once early in play if at all, the GM and others scoff when Bob tries to use his 3-points Demon Sword trait to sell the old lady the cookies, and Bob sheepishly claims he was just kidding.]
The principle is: no workshopping. Everyone does what he or she has the authority to do. Rather than blow past or ignore the fiction, this keeps the fiction “live and moving,” as opposed to going on hold while we talk it over, whether among us or individually/internally.
Bad? Good? That depends. This is something I’ve been running into for a while in consulting, because distribution is an important thing, but a lot of people are being way too simplistic. It is not “the answer” to the question of investment and engagement.
I recommend arranging a given game’s authorities for very specific concrete reasons, and I strongly discourage assuming that just spreading them out is necessarily going to increase the collective investment in play.
The assumption is that the more widely authorities are distrihuted around the table (situational, resolution, outcomes, et cetera), the more “collaborative” play is. I don’t think that’s true. Play is more collaborative when it is free from Murk, so that everyone participates in ways that matter. Too many of these overly-widely distributed authorities run us into Murk as badly as too-centralized and non-mechanical ones do. Both share the feature of turning to informal negotiation, i.e., comparing opinions to re-set “what’s happening,” and front-loading outcomes, i.e., pre-narrating.
Uh oh. I suggest otherwise. It is extremely tempting to imagine playing this way, and especially imagining that the resulting fiction is therefore more nuanced and more consequential. “Wow, Taffy the Lich Slayer is fighting the zombies, but this is really all about whether Seraph’s shrunken and wounded heart is healed a tiny bit when he finds out about it!!”
The reverse is true: it results in tedious and exhausting negotiations and play-without-play. The immediacy and vividness of the current situation cannot be replaced with empty Wushu-style description; such talk is not narration but is instead a chore with no satisfaction. That’s why people try to compensate with obviously non-applicable content (stupid, irrelevant, overly gross, whatever).
Furthermore, and more structurally, it steals power from the post-resolution narration, because no one cares, and removes any responsiveness to that narration which otherwise may or may not have led to anything to do with Seraph in my example. Everyone is always playing into the next “what if we” and “how about” instead of doing anything about the current situation.
Consider Trollbabe, in which the player might declare a Fighting conflict and is aware that this means the risk of physical injury. In that game, you can’t declare a Fighting conflict and then identify the kind of injury you might take as social; the consequences you might face just come with the package when you want to hurt or kill someone.
Non-nuanced? Unsubtle? Simplistic? Yes, to all three, and thankfully so. As I keep quoting from Tim Kleinert, “all conflict is a form of combat.” I would like you not to blow past that, just for a minute. The point is that if you’re in one, whatever it’s about and whatever negative consequences may apply, then you freaking strive to win this conflict or at least to survive it.
A couple of sub-points. First, if it’s not a conflict, but window dressing instead, then play it as window dressing, but know ahead of time which situations will be window dressing and which demand using the resolution mechanics to resolve them (and not something else). Converting any situation into window dressing vs. conflict as spitballed in the moment always becomes workshopping, of a sort which immediately prompts a battle for control in a variety of distrustful and sabotaging ways. (And don’t forget, people will call those ways “fun” because they want to get away with it.)
Second, corollary or consequential conflicts (combats) are perfectly viable and fine; that’s what more and further play is for. They get their own attention in some way, whether resolved in parallel or later depending on the game system.
Your hack sounds like it combines these issues in the most wrong-road way possible.
Maybe the fiction is a good way to go with this after all. What was a very specific situation that a character or characters faced? Don’t explain the mechanics, but just what was going on.
Clambering Back Up, Dusting Myself Off, Grinning Wolfishly
Ron, I must admit that I spent the time after replying to your post bracing myself for what you'd have to say. I wasn't worried in the least that it would be mean-spirited, but I knew it would be accurate. I tried to predict where the blow would land. I looked at this sentence and was pretty sure the knot was there:
There is a problem the hack is trying (unsuccessfully) to solve: The amount of 'processing power' demanded of the GM. The idea of distributing the mechanics wider was intended to make the GM role feel less like the 'console' for the game, responsible for managing the numbers, situational factors, etc. And, to answer your question about order, my idea was to set the Stress amount and Difficulty at the beginning of the scene, then have players define the type of Stress during the scene when we go to the dice. This would require pretty hard scene framing.
However, I felt like the real Achilles heel in the sentence above was the word expressive. Because the order of operations in this hack isn't about expressing character. It's the problem I have with Spire's Domain mechanic, just transposed to the Stress mechanics: There's this thing that ostensibly belongs to the character, but is really about all this stuff outside of, even tangential to, their passionate, dynamic core.
OK, so: Turning to the fiction. The PC, Schlick Malrique, had infiltrated a high elf financial organization by creating a cover that allowed him to become Head of Security. He collaborated with a Blood Witch (a magic user infected with an alien virus) to kidnap a high-ranking aelfir lawyer from the corporation's headquarters for interrogation.
Malrique relished the logistical side of plotting, and had ruthlessly orchestrated the information and locations available to the other characters so the lawyer's bodyguard showed up to the meet early, alone, and under the unlucky impression that the Blood Witch was Malrique's prisoner.
Although Malrique had the element of surprise, he was up against a highly trained and much better equipped opponent. He made his move, but his crossbow bolt missed, badly, and the bodyguard scored a direct hit on the Blood Witch with his one-shot Sparrow rifle. It's very hard to kill a Blood Witch, but Sparrow rifles are serious hardware, and the bullet slowed her down considerably.
This moment defined the course of the conflictL In one exchange, Malrique had gone from fully in control to fighting for his life.
He battered his foe's state-of-the-art armor with his cudgel, even managed to find a weak point in the joints, but then the bodyguard hauled his sword out and Malrique found himself desperately trying to get some breathing-room between himself and that wicked blade.
His bad luck continued, though. With a final push, the guard drove his sword right through him, inflicting a fatal blow.
However, the conflict wasn't over yet. With his last moments of consciousness, Malrique activated a gruesome occult trick he'd learned from the Faithful of King Teeth. His jaw distended, his bones cracked, his body warped into unnatural shape by magical energy, and he swallowed the bodyguard whole.
This could have been it. The Blood-Witch was clambering back to her feet, pouring parasitic blood everywhere. Malrique was pitched forward, swollen like a python, bent over the blade that impaled him.
He was presented with a choice: Die and take one last action to further the cause, or accept the Blood Witch infection and live, becoming a creature despised by spirit, god, and elf alike.
Malrique chose to give up his humanity (Drow-ity?) and become a novice Blood Witch. The alien infection braided itself up the sword-blade and into his body, reconstituting his ruined flesh by making it into something else.
This became a pivotal moment in the game. Malrique had already been facing questions of ends vs means, but this conflict crystallized how mercilessly committed he was to pursuing his ends. We followed the momentum of this scene through the rest of the arc (two sessions), exploring how making this choice unquestioningly, over and over, cost Malrique his revolutionary connections, his friendships, and finally his relationship with his sister Charlotte.
I completely agree with you
I completely agree with you about the expressiveness, or lack of it. I could see no connection between what you were describing and, for instance, what you wrote about Champions Now combat or any equivalent, combat or otherwise, for any role-playing situation. I hope you can see that my specific about the procedures (mechanics) aimed at this exact point.
Thanks for the fictional sequence; I'll follow up on that soon.
Ron, I completely agree on
Ron, I completely agree on the absolute necessity of playing a game to understand it. I asked about Hillfolk on the off-chance that you had played.
I actually got to play Trollbabe recently in this session, run by Manu! It was a blast.
One of the things that immediately jumped out at me was the Pace-setting mechanic, which I found a really effective procedure for negotiating how much screentime a given conflict would take up. If a player only wants to go with "Entire Conflict," it's not too big a compromise if the opposition shifts it up to "Exchange by Exchange." You never get the disconnect where one player wants everything narrated in excruciating detail, and another wants to roll and move on. To use the description you applied to The Pool, "the people just do their jobs and the dice are ready to be rolled as fast as it takes to pick them up ."
It occurs to me that the same gap in my thinking that undermines my Spire hack was actually holding me up in Trollbabe, too.
At one point, I initiated a Fight conflict with the goal of "Convincing the bloodthirsty human treasure-hunters to turn around and leave." Rod pointed out that this was actually a social conflict (looking at the rulebook, maybe with the goal of 'convincing, terrifying, or intimidating'). Sigrun had a high Number (I think it started at 8), but I had been playing her as a creative problem-solver, reluctant to knock others on the head when she could try talking to them.
I was reluctant to declare the goal as Fight because I hadn't wrapped my head around the fact that I could declare my goal to be just 'subduing or incapacitating' the humans. A Fight conflict didn't have to run counter to Sigrun's nonviolenet disposition. I also wasn't considering how I could ensure that the GM didn't narrate my success as a bloody massacre by how I narrated Sigrun's actions during the exchanges. If she's just throwing her chisel to disarm her foes and dangling the tiny humans by their napes, it's unlikely Manu's going to narrate her tearing an enemy's arm off or some similar atrocity.
It was like I was reaching for some too-subtle nuance in the Conflict-setting mechanics instead of just throwing the damn switch and doing something.
I've been staying with the Kleinert quote, and thinking a lot about this sentence from your comment: "Non-nuanced? Unsubtle? Simplistic? Yes, to all three, and thankfully so."
The Spire scene I picked out as particularly riveting was, not coincidentally, a scene in which the characters' objectives, their actions' consequences, and the scene's Stress types were clear, even obvious. Failing a roll meant getting impaled by a sword / taking a load of Blood Stress. Getting impaled meant, well, dying or being seriously incapacitated.
The stakes were high, because every roll meant the potential for Fallout. No fancy decoupling of 'what we're narrating' from 'what's actually going on.' We both had to "freaking strive to win this conflict" and no other.
I'm thinking that Spire does itself a disservice by limiting its 'extended' conflicts, where multiple actions are taken and stress is tracked, to only combat. When I run it next I want to try using conflict for multiple kinds of Stress. And also to focus on making my play 'non-nuanced, unsubtle,' and 'simplistic' as I can.
At the very least, I think this would make us go to the dice only when things have gotten serious. If the dice mechancis are somewhat unwieldy to engage, then one answer might be to focus on them only when it's worth it.
I greatly appreciate that you
I greatly appreciate that you haven't perceived my growly comment as a rant. Please be critical of my position as you continue to review and apply it; sooner or later, a particular game or experience might show me to be wrong in its case.
I'm glad you said this:
Because I hadn't myself figured out why your description seemed so much less problematic than I had expected given your description of the game procedures. Granted, I probably shouldn't have held any expectations in the first place, but I think we're agreeing that when announced actions, formal-rules goals statements, potential consequences, and available game components (probabilities, damage, etc) don't line up, a game designed this way immediately sprawls.
A lot of texts encourage this kind of stop-and-sprawl, favoring a workshop, committee, how-about approach to play … and the usual response is not to drill into the most immediate, obvious, and fun thing to do, but rather to spray into more and more irrelevant suggestions, and often, narrating ahead of the outcome in more and more detail, and freely adding characters and backgrounds and actions.
"Hey! How about you get away, but there's an assassin lurking around, send by Lord Zigzag, and the Stakes are that your uncle finds about it and sends an assassin after me!!" That sort of thing..
I’d like to break this out
I'd like to break this out for consideration:
Because for me, it does not follow even a little bit from the paragraph just before it. That paragraph makes a ton of sense. This one seems to me like a sudden portal into the Negative Zone, if it was supposed to proceed from there, and by "Negative Zone" I don't mean Kirby cool, but messed-up.
Messed-up how? Specifically in relating the less fun features of using the dice to more consequential features of the fiction.
I see why you might say that, in that we don't want to roll dice and negotiate outcomes or whatever about stuff that doesn't matter. Role-playing culture does display a lot of this, in the older form of "roll to work the photocopier," and in the newer form of "um, so what's our conflict for this scene? um …" But you're going through a portal to a weird space in trying to solve it.
Instead, consider when the dice (sensu lato) and their associated procedures of talking feature these qualities:
I submit that when these are in effect, that people do not avoid the system because it's annoying and save it "only for when it matters," but instead, seek it because it's consequential, it expresses their own agency, it's participatory, inspires creative and relevant input, and is straightforwardly exciting and fun.
This topic blends well with my recent comments to Sean here, so check that out when you can.
oh, one more thing
This question occurred to me while turning over your long post: I'd be curious to hear if you think Hillfolk/DramaSystem is interesting to examine through these lenses.
I haven't played it yet, but it seems like there are layers built into the conflict system, and I imagine that, played wrong, the conflict system could drain the "post-resolution narration."
In a Drama Scene, a character could think they're going to their warrior-queen mother to get a battalion of spear-men to raid the next city over, but they're actually there to get emotional assurance that they are worthy of responsibility. Is this an instance of murky design, or do you think it actually works because the game (seems, on a first reading) to carefully distinguish those layers of dramatic irony?
Since neither you nor I have
Since neither you nor I have played Hillfolk, we shouldn't speculate.
I concluded that one must read and consider the texts, and one must also play – there isn't any shortcut at either end.
To date, however, I have not yet found the "we are doing X but conflict is about Y" to be validated, if we are talking about complete replacement of X by Y in the mechanics. Someone may have done it and I don't know about it yet, or someone may do it in the fullness of time. If Hillfolk is the former, and I have no reason to think it is or it isn't, then, well, we both need to read it, play it, and discover that for ourselves.
If you aren't familiar with Trollbabe, I suggest checking out its distinction among Fighting, Magic, and Social conflicts pretty carefully. I'd be interested in what you see or experience there.