Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Five or So Questions with Grant Howitt on Spire

Hey all! Today I have an interview with the fantastic Grant Howitt on his new game Spire, created alongside his cohorts Mary Hamilton and Chris Taylor from Rowan, Rook & Decard. Spire is currently on Kickstarter, and has some mad cool art. It's got some themes I dig, so when Grant asked about an interview, I was stoked. Check out the responses below!

Art by Adirian Stone
Tell me a little about Spire. What excites you about it?

Here's the elevator pitch: you play a dark elf in a city ruled by high elves, and the high elves are cruel and uncaring and powerful and you're downtrodden and your culture is being eroded, day by day, so you decide to fight back and subvert the high elf rule through shadow war and insurrection. It's a storygame, in as much as it has a system which focuses more on abstraction than simulation, and we've tried to write it around making it as easy as possible to tell the sort of dark, desperate stories we envisage coming out of the setting.

The thing that's exciting me now is, weirdly enough, the minutiae; after writing so many short games (or, like Unbound, games which don't use setting at all) it's wonderful to be able to really luxuriate in a world and poke around in its corners. I got to write a section detailing the different kinds of goats you get in the city of Spire, you know? And I don't know if anyone will actually use that in their games, but I think that it all adds to the ecosystem of the thing, that it all supports itself. It's been interesting to see how people have already taken to the setting.

Where did you pull from for the setting - from media and from your own experiences in games and otherwise?

We've drawn inspiration from all sorts of places. Off the top of my head: Unknown Armies, Perdido Street Station, Gormenghast, Necromunda, and Dredd have all been influential. I've also been fascinated by depictions of Kowloon Walled City, in terms of how humans can rebuild and repurpose spaces in desperate times for their own ends. (Something about the idea of building something in a space meant for something else really fascinates me.) As far as the look and feel of the thing goes, we've looked to the Brutalist movement of the 1960's/70's to inspire our architecture; lots of harsh lines, big angular shapes, jutting concrete. 

We've also drawn heavily on our love for cyberpunk - Neuromancer is one of my favourite novels - to inspire us, but we've replaced technology with religion. A lot of the game is about control over religion, and in a fantasy world where clerics can perform actual provable miracles, you start veering into cyberpunk territory pretty quickly. 

Art by Adirian Stone

What are the benefits to a D10 system for this kind of game? How does it make the action appropriate to the themes and setting?

It's the one we settled on, really. We wrote no fewer than fifteen systems for Spire, trying to find one that was smooth enough to run without getting in the way but granular enough for us to write specific rules for characters, gods, etc; we had a playing card system, we used D20s, we used D6 pools, and so on, and so on. We tried everything. As we went through our first playtests, though, it became pretty clear to me that the system we were using wasn't working, and I wanted something with more streamlined rules that the GM could run without really thinking about it.

The reason we ended up with a D10 system is that we didn't want to, and couldn't really, write rules for every single thing in the city. We wanted to leave a lot of it up to the GM to determine, because everyone's game is different; and therefore rather than writing a comprehensive and perhaps unwieldy ruleset, we opted for something that GMs can grok really easily and then get on with the business of telling stories.

How do you see stress working out in playtests? What emotional experiences do the players have with it, and how does that match your intent with the design?

Honestly, I'd like to see more characters going mad and dying, but we seem to have quite lucky players. Stress is interesting; it rewires everything bad that can happen to you into a single number, so there's kind of a floating badness behind a character with high stress - a high potential for something going really wrong. One thing we've tried to do is make sure that fallout, especially severe fallout, pushes the story forwards rather than stopping it. We don't want to punish people for pushing their characters past the breaking point by removing them from the story; we wanted to reward them with more story, but not necessarily a nice story.

As far as concrete examples go... we had one character use his sacred rope to bind a door shut so no-one could open it (and thus escape from the massacre inside that the players had set up to assassinate a corrupt bishop), and as he watched blood pool under the gap, he developed a lasting phobia of doors. We had another group summon, and then sacrifice, a river god to power a ritual, and in seeing the river god come to earth our Azurite (a type of trader-priest) went utterly mad. I gave him the option of surviving if he betrayed his friends on behalf of the new god, and to the player's credit, he immediately launched himself off the side of Spire and crashing down into the docks below than risk staying alive a minute longer. Those two really stand out for me.

Layout by Alina Sandu
What is the most challenging thing you've encountered with the path of design to funding? Have you had to rethink a rule shortly before the Kickstarter, and if so, how do you resolve that? 

We're rethinking and tweaking rules all the time; we invented an entire class (the Firebrand) about a fortnight before the campaign began because I felt like we needed to give players some more room to manoeuvre. Luckily, by now, we've got a feeling for the system and setting which means that we can intuit rules fairly easily now without the need for extensive testing.

We actually rewrote the equipment rules earlier this week; in the quick-start rules they use a level system, and if the level of your item is higher than the level of the area you're in, you get an extra dice to roll... and I dunno, it worked, it just didn't sing to me. It wasn't doing what we wanted with equipment, which was to use it to help portray the character who's carrying it. So now we've scrapped the level system and switched to a more narrative thing, where (non-weapon/armour) equipment is either mundane and it just lets you do the thing, or it's special and you name a positive and negative aspect about it that marks it out from every other item of its kind in Spire. It gets players thinking more about their equipment choices and pushing the story forward to their specialties, which I like.

Who are some of the characters you've seen in play, NPCs or PCs, that you think embody The Spire as a story and setting?

We've had a hired killer who packed it all in and joined the community-focused church of the light side of the moon; we've had a towering glamazon with an Amy Winehouse beehive and a sacred hyena chained to her wrist; a rough-and-tumble Knight of the North Docks (think a sort of feudal mafia) whose player decided that all Knights are in fact women wearing giant codpieces and dressing up as men, and more power to her because that's a brilliant idea; a Firebrand espousing Marxist ideals; and one guy who, when he was held at gunpoint, about to be sacrificed to a hungry god of vengeance, managed to convince the ritual leader that there was a better life for her with him - and the pair of them ran away and now live unhappily above a pub. 

Map by Tim Wilkinson Lewis
How does religion work mechanically, at least in a vague sense, in Spire? I'm curious about the application!

Each class has a Refresh ability which they use to remove stress - and in the case of religious characters, this is tied to their faith. The Lahjan, moon-clerics, remove stress when they help people who can't help themselves; the Carrion-Priests remove it when they complete a hunt; and so on. We've also got a few additional abilities tied to minor faiths - not minor in the sense of power, but minor in the sense that we didn't feel that there was enough material to build a whole class around them. Anyone who fits the prerequisites can access these abilities, and with them they get an additional Refresh ability.

In terms of what it does in-game; at low levels, many of the miracles are coincidental or limited in their scope (so you can heal people for a bit, or summon a flock of crows, or buy access to a proficiency you don't have) and later on they ramp up to some real weirdness, like turning into moonlight or a massive hyena or a crowd or an idea. (The Firebrand, as I mentioned earlier, gets access to divine powers but only really at high levels; due to the loose way that reality works in Spire, and in our setting, the more successful they get, the more power they start generating from the faith that people place in them until they can enchant improvised weapons by touching them.)

Art by Adirian Stone

Thanks so much to Grant for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading about Spire and that you'll check out the Kickstarter as it's rounding up to finish soon!

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