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.