Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Build Their Ambitions High

Over the previous Kickstarters of his I’ve covered I’ve come to respect Grant Howitt’s capabilities both as a game designer and as a Kickstarter project owner. Yes, he was involved in the Paranoia Kickstarter which turned into a bit of a debacle, but I’m disinclined to hold that against him; based on the snarky developer commentary that was released as part of that project, it sounds like he was working under a number of constraints not of his own choosing from the publishers and rights owners.

In addition it wasn’t 100% his project. James Wallis was his co-worker on it, and seemed to be very much in the senior position there; it was James, not Grant, who took an age to get the manuscript to Mongoose Publishing, it’s James who went dark to an extent that Mongoose had to put out a statement saying “Yeah, we’re not really in contact with Wallis any more, we have to filter all our communication to him through an intermediary because he won’t talk to us directly, and we’ve given up all hope of ever receiving the stretch goal content he committed to produce”.

And even then, before it went sour, the project was very much pushed as a James Wallis design primarily. Yes, Grant’s involvement was touted on the Kickstarter campaign too, but it was very clear from how things were framed that we were supposed to see James as the big draw: this wasn’t framed as a “James Wallis and Grant Howitt” project, Paranoia was very much framed as a “James Wallis!!! (and also Grant Howitt)” deal.

No, I feel that the true measure of Howitt is better reflected in Goblin Quest, a game which manages to be a better Paranoia-type game than the latest edition of Paranoia was. That project, though the production of hard copies ended up being somewhat late, at least avoided becoming a morass of toxicity between game designer and backers (unlike, say, every Kickstarter that has had James Wallis in a major role), largely because Howitt was able to keep communicating with us adequately. And the actual game was pretty good too!

So, whilst it’s nice that Howitt has kept up a stream of additional small games, it was still exciting to hear that he, his wife Mary Hamilton, and fellow game designer Chris Taylor were consolidating their efforts and, taking on the corporate identity of Rowan, Rook & Decard, were going to Kickstart Spire – a tabletop RPG of dark elves treading the difficult tightrope between “revolutionary freedom fighter” and “occult terrorist” in a weird city struggling under an oppressive high elf regime. With Spire – and its followup project Strata – having delivered, and with new project Heart approaching completion, now’s a good a time as any to look back and see what Grant and his colleagues have accomplished with Spire and Strata


Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign(s)

The campaign for the core Spire rulebook ran in mid-2017 and had 1483 backers contributing £71,708, the campaign for Strata – a big fat supplement to it – ran in 2019 and had 1291 backers contributing £54,686. That’s a dip, but I’d say that’s actually very good going and a strong vote of confidence of the community when backing Strata in the light of Spire.

It’s a truism in the RPG industry that supplements invariably don’t sell as well as core books – after all, if you don’t like the core game, you’re deeply unlikely to throw more money at it, and you can’t expect 100% of the people who buy the core book to like it, so even before you considers factors like how many supplements are more referee-facing than player-facing there’s reasons why you just wouldn’t expect a supplement to outsell the game it’s supplemental to. For Strata to pull numbers in its crowdfunding campaign comparable to the amount Spire itself pulled down suggests a combination of strong retention of backers of the previous campaign and good word of mouth.

What Level I Backed At

For Spire:

Hardback: You’ll get a beautiful, full-colour hardback physical copy of Spire, as well as a downloadable PDF.

For Strata:

Physical: A full-colour hard-cover copy of Strata containing all unlocked stretch goals. This pledge level also includes a digital copy of the game.

Delivering the Goods

The estimated delivery date for Spire was March 2018, I got my physical copy in May 2018; the estimated delivery date for Strata was April 2019 and I got my physical copy in June 2019. This is a brief enough delay to be considered “essentially on time” by the standards of tabletop RPG Kickstarters, especially since the PDFs were delivered in the estimated months and Rowan, Rook & Decard seem to have based their tier estimates on delivery of the PDF, even for tiers where the point is arguably not the PDF but the physical book. That’s a bit naughty, but much less annoying when the physical book isn’t that far behind the PDF, and communication is competently handled, which was the case for both projects.

Reviewing the Swag

Spire

They came from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow: out of the north came the masked high elves, who conquered the drow (dark elf) satellite kingdom that lay around the Spire. Off to the west, a ruthless civil war wracks the drow homelands, leaving them incapable of sending aid even assuming they were willing to; off to the south, the high elves are bogged down in a war against hyaena-faced gnolls who call on terrible summoned entities in their fight, whilst in this world human beings largely busy themselves in their short 60-year lifespans with fiddling about with advanced technologies – most of which are recovered from arcologies, deep underground facilities left behind by a lost civilisation. Whilst a human nation exists off to the east, in the lands around the Spire they mainly show up either as researchers looking for technical data or mercenaries using their technology in the service of others.

The Spire itself is a vast city – or it might be more proper to call it a vast structure which people have colonised to use as a city. At its heart is a weeping hole in the fabric of reality; in its upper reaches the masked high elf nobility go about the business of government. In its factories and universities strange technologies propagate. Riddled through its structure are the houses and practices of religions, cults, secret societies and even stranger groupings, working for entities and agendas of their own.

And pushed down and oppressed (with the exception of a few pampered collaborators) are drow, who must serve a four year stint of servitude to the high elves to even have the right to live in Spire. Even the drow religion is oppressed; just as the high elves venerate a solar-themed pantheon, the drow worship a moon goddess who has three aspects – but only one aspect, that of the light of the moon in its fullness, is legally allowed to be worshipped in the Spire.

In Spire, the player characters are all drow who for one reason or another have joined the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress – both a cult worshipping the darkness of the new moon and a cell-based revolutionary organisation out to overthrow the high elves. Whether this is even possible is a tough call, and the odds are stacked against them; many of their own family members would report them if they discovered their affiliation with the Ministry in order to avoid reprisals, and the Ministry would cut its ties with them in an instant if they were deemed no longer useful to the revolution. Sacrifices will be made, people will be hurt and killed, fortunes and reputations will be made and ruined. Is it all worth it? For some, so long as the city falls, the answer is “yes”.

So, as you can probably figure out, whilst a fantasy RPG this is a weird quasi-cyberpunk sort of fantasy with a heck of a lot of anger and some interesting twists on the classic fantasy tropes, particularly those tropes that fantasy RPGs inherit from Dungeons & Dragons (like how they Howitt and Taylor make hay out of the gnoll-hyaena connection). In the process of doing so they also do a great job of not just repeating tired-out, offensive tropes in an unthinking fashion. For instance, on drow skin colour they take one simple step which does an awful lot in in terms of getting away from its history of unfortunate racial connotations in its past depictions – they vary it. Rather than all drow being one skin colour, they run a spectrum from ink-black to slate-grey to ivory-white – very monochrome, but also very variable. This instantly means there’s a clear visual marker setting them apart, but at the same time no one particular skin colour is associated with them, and the marker in question also isn’t connected with any particular real-world ethnicity.

Along with eliding aspects of fantasy stock tropes that can happily stay back in the past, the duo also tune up and give a unique spin to other common aspects of the drow. For instance, drow have that whole spider connection going on, so the drow here, unlike the high elves, don’t give live births but instead produce fleshy eggs which must be incubated appropriately for the last two trimesters before birth by expert Matriarchs who have a certain spidery nature to them. They also have a well-known aversion to the sun, which is inflicted on them here unless they go forth covering all exposed skin and wearing shades or tinted goggles – which naturally gives them this sort of badass Fields of the Nephilim look which never hurts. The in-setting explanation for the drow’s aversion to the sun and spider-like qualities is that they are under a terrible Curse that was put upon them by the high elves in ancient days, though the text openly ponders whether this is actually the case or just high elf propaganda to reinforce a sense of inferiority among the drow.

(For their part, the high elves always go about masked, and indeed to wear another’s mask is such a taboo that high elves rarely even consider that someone might be doing it; it’s outright stated that a few of the most powerful individuals in the Spire might actually be humans or drow pulling a fast one in this manner. Their fixation on masks reminds me of the Empire of Granbretan in the Hawkmoon novels by Michael Moorcock, which may well be on purpose given that “aloof elves who dole out cruelty and torture on a casual basis” has a certain precedent in Moorcock’s fiction.)

It’s no surprise to note Fallen London among the game’s influences, since the sheer reeking strangeness of the city is reminiscent of that setting as well as a range of other New Weird works. The artwork in the book does a superb job of conveying the atmosphere of the text – the neons of cyberpunk mashing up with the stark lines and vertigo-inducing perspective of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque expressionism, with perhaps a touch of art deco on the more high-status architecture and people.

This is matched by extensive details offered on the places, important groups, and significant individuals who live in the Spire, with much of this description being gathered together by subject – so occult topics cluster in one chapter, crime in another, allowing you to focus on the people and things most relevant to your players’ interests.

The system is reminiscent of a somewhat more advanced and flexible take on Cthulhu Dark, at least when it comes to the actual dice-rolling. Characters possess various skills and domains – skills representing training in a broad set of thematically-related abilities, domains representing familiarity particular sphere of life in the Spire (like High Society or Academia). You may also have particular abilities, powers, or circumstantial bonuses which give you mastery under specific conditions.

When you attempt an action, you always roll at least one ten-sided die (D10). You get to roll an extra D10 if you have an applicable skill, an extra one if you have an applicable domain, and a final extra one if you have mastery in the circumstance in question.

So, you are going to be rolling one to four dice, and the thing which matters is the highest number on any of them. If you roll an 8-9 your action succeeds without any blowback, and if you roll a 10 you even get a little extra effect, but if you get 7 or under you at worst fail outright, at best barely scrape a success – but whatever happens you pick up Stress.

Stress comes in a range of different flavours, each of which is tracked separately. Blood, for instance, is the Stress track associated with direct bodily harm, whilst Silver is the Stress track associated with personal resources. The flavour of Stress inflicted is decided by the referee based on the circumstances, and the referee is responsible for keeping track of everyone’s Stress totals – you can get an idea of how much Stress you are under on a narrative basis (“you’re out of breath and your limbs are shaking”, for instance), but that’s it.

Every time Stress is added to a track, the referee rolls a D10, and if they get equal to or under (CHECK) the Stress total in that track then that Stress is wiped and converted to Fallout – something bad has happened and will cause you an actual game mechanical penalty until resolved. The severity of the Fallout generally is tied to how much Stress built up before it was inflicted; various means exist to dial back Stress, which should probably be paid attention to. In addition, based on your character type and other character generation decisions (like what you did in your 4-year stint of service to the high elves – or what you did whilst hiding from it), you’ll be resilient to some types of Stress, so the first few points you get on the relevant tracks won’t count towards the total for the purpose of that all-important Fallout roll. You also get a Refresh depending on your character type, an action you can take to shake some of that Stress. (Keeping Stress totals out of sight of players, as well as having actions you take to refresh your capabilities, are both things which are very reminiscent of Unknown Armies, one of the RPGs that’s cited as an influence on the game.)

The net effect of this is that characters edge closer and closer to disaster the more they stick their neck out, and will tend to gather various interesting problems as play progresses, so by and large this is a good example of game mechanics supporting the sort of outcomes that the game wants to encourage. Similarly, as far as character improvement goes, you can take an “advance” whenever the party’s actions can be said to have changed the city – the magnitude and scope of the change will tend to be reflected in the magnitude of the advance you take.

The overall package, then, is a nice, simple system which has the action it wants to encourage hardwired into it. The way advances work means that PCs always have an incentive to proactively change the world, as revolutionaries worthy of the name should, the particular domains on offer reflect the major themes of the game, and the skills available reflect the game’s ideas about how characters can most effectively change the world. The system is also nice and simple to deploy, but feels like it has enough moving parts that it doesn’t feel shallow or lacking in flexibility.

In short, Spire is a great little system tied to a lush setting, all delivered in a beautifully-realised package, and Howitt and Taylor can be proud of it.

Black Magic

This is a sort of bridging product between the original Spire Kickstarter and Strata, since whilst the PDF version was a stretch goal for Spire, print copies became available as a result of the Strata project. This is a flavourful little mini-supplement offering a range of extra character options for those who want to dabble in really alarming forms of magic – blood magic, demonology, beekeeping, that sort of thing – as part of their struggles within the Spire. It’s fun and flavourful, but a mere appetiser compared to the delicious feast which is…

Strata

About as thick as the original Spire itself, Strata offers a deeper look at the background of the world and major districts within the Spire, a collection of extra character options and equipment bits, and no less than ten scenario seeds – all of which are ripe for either using as-is or entirely capable of being strip-mined for further inspiration. No matter what your Spire campaign concept, there’s likely to be something in Strata you can grab to provide further grist for your mill.

Book of Masks

This is a mini-supplement about the size of Black Magic, which is presented as an in-character catalogue of masks – as so beloved by the high elf rulers of the Spire, as well as drow who want to disguise themselves – along with some rules annotations on special effects provided by these masks. Equipment sourcebooks for RPGs are typically dry affairs; this is a welcome exception, with Howitt and Taylor teasing out all the flavour suggested by the concept. In the way that each entry constitutes not only interesting world information but also sparks fascinating story ideas, it might be the best equipment book for an RPG since the AD&D 2nd Edition Book of Artifacts.

The Campaign Frames: Eidolon Sky, Blood and Dust, and The Kings of Silver

These three little booklets offer somewhat more developed scenario ideas than those in Strata itself, lending themselves to being resolved over the scope of an entire campaign (and, as the term “campaign frame” suggests, providing a certain amount of shape to the campaign). Unlike conventional published adventures for RPGs, which almost inevitably a) try to impose a certain linearity on proceedings and b) break once the players buck that linearity, these campaign frames offer you pointers on how the campaign might start, interesting people or places that might be involved in the situation and scenes which might unfold connected with them, and pointers towards potential endings, as well as pregenerated characters to let your gaming group get playing quickly if you wish.

Perhaps my favourite of these is The Kings of Silver, which starts off with a premise as simple as “Take this sheath of newspaper clippings and this nightclub front we’ve set up for you in the Silver Quarter; investigate the leads in the clippings as you wish and use them to take over the Quarter in the manner you desire.” This sets the players up with a goal, and a bunch of NPCs to bounce off and plot threads to follow, but gives the players free reign to decide how they proceed and the referee the freedom to decide what is actually going on.

Newspaper and Clippings

This is a delightful handout to just give to players and let them bounce off – both the main newspaper itself and accompanying clippings look both delightfully vintage and are steeped in the atmosphere of the setting.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right in both cases, since the materials I received are gorgeous enough to want in physical form and I feel no great need for the higher-tier rewards when I already have the above riches.

Would Back Again?

Plainly, since I’m a backer on Heart.

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