I’ve previously covered how Rowan, Rook & Decard are pretty dang reliable when it comes to delivering on their Kickstarters, and this has remained true of their latest, so I won’t be giving their new RPG Heart the full Kickstopper treatment – there just isn’t that interesting a story to tell there. Instead, I’m just going to review the swag I got. Here goes!
Where Spire focused on political intrigue and scheming, freedom fighter heists, social pitfalls and all that jazz, Heart is based more on the traditional exploration-and-dungeoneering type of play that very old school tabletop RPGs often focused on, but given a decidedly new school twist. The titular Heart is a region below Spire itself – an oozing wound in reality itself, that’s been leaking in strange ways ever since the high elf occupiers of the Spire tried to use it as the hub of a railway network that went wrong.
Whereas the aboveground world of the Spire is rife with racial tensions, the strange communities which make their home in the Heart and the no-elf’s-land between Heart and Spire tend to be a bit more egalitarian in that respect, consisting of individuals bound together by common agendas rather than cultural or ethnic affiliation. The Heart reshapes those who plumb its depths into the shape of their desires… but it’s clumsy at it. And in its fractured depths, it is even possible to reach entire other worlds.
Heart is a very different sort of dungeon exploration game, and simultaneously a classic-style one, in the sense that it implements a lot of similar-feeling gameplay but in a very different way. Working off similar system principles to Spire, it treats things like getting from A to B – usually getting from one landmark to the other in the twisting depths of the Heart – in an abstracted fashion, in which precise mapping is replaced with overcoming sufficient challenges to complete the journey.
It also very clearly communicates the distinction between traditional RPG gameplay, in which you very much “inhabit” your character and you tend to make decisions based on information the character would have (or close analogies – a Call of Cthulhu character doesn’t know they have a “Spot Hidden” score of 90%, but they’re probably aware that they are damn good at finding stuff), and a more narratively-oriented style where you make decisions as a co-creator of the story trying to devise a satisfying plot arc for your character. (Your character has no idea, for instance, that their progress is tied to story “Beats” – not all of which are beneficial to them in the fiction – but you do and can make decisions on that basis.)
Roadside Picnic is mentioned in the bibliography, and though in aesthetic and system it is not much like the Stalker RPG, there’s a similar general atmosphere, though with the badassness of the player characters turned up a few notches. Your player character has a powerful motivation to stay in the underground, and that motivation isn’t just a one-line memo on your character sheet, easily forgotten – it’s a character creation decision that’s easily as significant as your Ancestry (dark elf, high elf, human, or gnoll) or Calling (one of the various “character class”-type professions, which include wizards who have special magical bees living inside their bodies and crusaders trying to bring chivalry and justice to the railways).
With excellent referee advice, a system that’s quick to master (and will be instantly familiar to Strata players), and a fat stack of sample adversaries, landmarks, and general cool shit, Heart can be picked up and played immediately, and indeed I think it’s in some respects more approachable than Strata in this fashion. In Strata, after all, your dark elves live in a society; they’re embedded in that context, the shit they do can have an effect on the people they live next door to, and they have to simultaneously stay one step ahead of the heat without abandoning the revolution. In Heart, these considerations matter much less; the people you encounter in one particular settlement might never cross your path again once you move on, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever visit the same landmark twice.
This makes risk-taking (both in terms of your character’s decisions and your narrative contributions as player or referee) a bit easier: in a tense revolutionary setup where you are fighting an oppressive state, it can feel like a significant enough fuckup could burn the entire party, whereas if you mess up really badly in Heart you can just shoulder your pack and continue in your voyaging.
Between this and some further insights into this game setting that Howitt and Taylor have produced, Heart is a good complement to Spire – it clearly feels like something that belongs in the same strange world, but at the same time it has a different enough emphasis that making it as a separate game rather than as a Spire supplement make sense, and I can imagine there being some gamers who enjoy one game but not the other because of those differing focuses for whom being able to get that Heart-y goodness without having to invest in Spire (or vice versa) is decidedly useful.
If you already own the core rules, this is notable mainly for the introductory adventure Drowned. Contrary to the approach of many introductory adventures in Quickstart rules, this doesn’t hold the referee’s hand on a scene by scene basis: instead, it showcases how the system principles of Heart provide a basis for improvisation without demanding that every significant scene be planned out in laborious detail.
Burned and Broken
Spire characters, as they stand, aren’t as competent at doing Heart stuff as Heart characters are, for multiple reasons. For one thing, their socially-oriented abilities don’t make sense in a world where the social features underpinning them are either absent or not consistently present. For another, Spire and Heart, though based in the same world and with broadly similar systems, are based around very different themes, and the capabilities and competences of characters are based around those themes.
If you want to include the Heart as a location of interest in Spire, you’ve always been able to – it’s discussed in the core book and everything. If you want to put core book Heart characters in Spire… why? Many of them are not even dark elves, subverting the baseline assumption of that game, and their Callings means their interests are very much focused on delving into the Heart. rather than engaging with the society of the City Above, so they wouldn’t want to go up to Spire and join the Ministry anyway – too much of a distraction.
However, one could envisage a situation where Spire characters are cast out by the Ministry – the resistance movement in Spire – and end up heading down to the Heart and find a new Calling down there in exploring it. Burned and Broken is written to support that – both by providing pointers on how to convert a Spire character to Heart and by providing a campaign framework based around exploring your characters’ descent into the Heart – for the duration of which instead of pursuing a Calling you explore a Fall, by the end of which you have a Calling of your own.
Though it does provide quick and dirty hints as to how to convert Spire characters and their abilities into Heart terms, it’s more recommended to get the rough sense of your character, using their Spire class as the “Origin” which replaces your Heart-style ancestry. If you don’t want to convert an existing PC but just want to run a Heart chararacter who happens to have connections to the Ministry, a variant Heart Calling is provided to do that, with an agenda revolving around locating pieces the shattered power of the dark elf moon goddess hidden in the Heart.
The nice thing about the Fall concept is that it makes this supplement really flexible; you can run the Fall either as a brief mini-campaign of its own, or as the climax to a Spire campaign, or as a prologue for Heart, or as part of a transition between a Spire campaign and a Heart campaign. That’s surprisingly useful even before you consider the other material the booklet offers – including a brace of additional landmarks and delves that are especially appropriate for a campaign using Burned and Broken.
This is another mini-supplement detailing a somewhat alternate way of playing Heart – one in which rather than generically exploring the Heart and never calling one place home, the PCs are all working to protect and help a particular, defined settlement in the Heart, which they define with the referee at the start of the campaign. The supplement outlines how you do this, how you flesh it out with characters, and offers dramatic beats for the settlement itself – along with a clutch of angels, living shards of the Heart’s will, who can provide the sort of threat to your haven that the angels in Evangelion pose to the planet. There’s not much more to say about this, it’s kind of brief and to the point.
Vermissian Black Ops
Another mini-supplement looping back to Spire, this is a supplement about the Vermissian lines – the Heart-connected transport network first introduced in Spire – as well as providing a way to use the Heart system to run teams of grizzled commando operatives hitting targets in Spire via the Vermissian for the Ministry.
As I said above in relation to Burned and Buried, it doesn’t make sense for Heart characters specifically to go visit Spire, but this supplement provides a framework for using characters of a comparable power level on missions in the Spire. It even suggests running it in conjunction with a Spire game if you want a crossover – you could have each player running two characters, a more typical Spire character for intel-gathering and cell work, and a black ops unit for a surgical strike based on intel your Spire characters have obtained. (This is a bit like how Black Crusade works best with Chaos Space Marine-tier and human-tier characters kept separate, but you can get a lot of mileage out of running a group of Chaos Space Marines as the heavy unit and a human group of infiltrators paving the way for attacks.)
Doors To Elsewhere
This last mini-supplement offers a campaign framework centred around a crisis in Elsewhere – an otherplanar city whose doors open all over the multiverse, including into the Heart. It’s interesting, but considering how tightly all the other supplements are to specific themes – either reinforcing the core themes of Heart or finding alternate themes – it feels like this supplement is a bit more disparate; in particular, it’s not 100% clear to me why it would necessarily be Heart characters rather than, say, Spire characters (or, for that matter, civic-minded PCs from any other RPG) addressing this situation.