East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Elves and revolution


Never liked the guys myself.
Elves, I mean.
Certainly the responsibility rests mostly with Tolkien, but really it was playing D&D that fuelled my antipathy for the elves. Maybe it’s because we never met a poor elf, a down-on-their-luck elf, a working stiff elf. No, the guys were always clean-cut and haughty, with their magic bonuses, their blade-dancing, their artifacts of power and what else. Later, Shadowrun nailed the whole thing, by portraying elves as an elite, and other metahumans – especially orcs and trolls – as discriminated minorities.

Now, I tend to take the accusation of an “inherent racism” in fantasy with a grain of salt, but there’s no doubt that when you write that there’s a whole species that is evil by birth alone… genetically or culturally, you’re off on a dangerous path.
Stuff like “Zingarans are all full of boast and pride” can go from a cliché to a generalization to a racist slur pretty easily. And do not even start me on Zamorean women, or the people of Kithai.

Now, in recent years, we’ve seen a lot of good stuff coming in the field of fantasy, both fiction and roleplaying games, and such issues are, if not happily archived, at least being tackled with intelligence by good authors.. Sometimes the effect can be a little blunt, but the fact that an issue is being addressed is always a plus.
Which, in a rather circuitous fashion, brings us to Spire: The City Must Fall.

Financed with a successful Kickstarter in 2018, Spire: The City Must Fall is a fantasy game that has more to do with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar or Mary Gentle’s Rats & Gargoyles than, say, with Howard’s Conan or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And you know I am bound to love it, considering how much I love Peake, Leiber and Gentle.
So yes, Spire is an urban fantasy – and there’s not a single angel smooching a werewolf in sight.

The premise: Spire, ancient city of the Drow (or dark elves) has been conquered by the Aelfir, or High Elves. Now the masters live at the top of the mile-high tower/city, and the dark elves live a life of poverty, spending four years as indentured workers and then being relegated to the deep bowels of their city.
In Spire, social stratification is built into the architecture.
But now 200 years have passed, and revolution is brewing.

So yes, Spire: The City Must Fall is a game in which the players portray dark elves and insurgents, rats in the walls of a city they once owned, and in which now they are denied their culture, their religion, their history.
The game has a very noir feel to it, as crosses and double-crosses are to be expected – and really, a good acquaintance with spy fiction could be helpful for masters and players.
This is Snowpiercer and The Little Drummer Girl rolled together and set in Gormenghast, but written by M. John Harrison. Now that’s a blast.
There is a post-industrial feel to the game’s venue, and a general bleakness in the social and moral landscape in which the characters move. I would not call it grimdark – because I do not like the label,and because the game is more nuanced than the often rough “everyone’s a bastard” tone of much grimdark fiction.

While not a game for newbies, Spire has a simple and lightweight system that integrates perfectly with the setting, and allows the creation of vivid characters and the development of complex, highly rewarding games.
The vaguely Mignola-esque art by Adrian Stone complements the game wonderfully. There is a perfect match, a total continuity between characters, rules and setting, and the rulesbook is well-written and chock-full of adventure ideas. Indeed, Spire: The City Must Fall is one of those game that, once read, made me feel like writing a story in a similar setting.
Because the setting is so good, and stories come naturally out of it.

Much has been made of the use of the Drow as the oppressed group in the game, and many simple souls have boiled down the whole thing to the equation

dark elves = people of color

but that’s a rather simplistic approach. While it is painfully true that discrimination is normally tied to ethnicity, it is also true that “the others” is a very fluid category – all you need is a bad conscience and some handy bias, and anyone can become a member of the downtrodden.

And talking about bad conscience…
In a number of reviews I’ve read while preparing this post, a lot was also made of the fact that the game has no moral Alignment for the characters – no Chaotic Good or Neutral Evil in this one. And I am always a little surprised about how much stock other gamers put in that old mechanics. Maybe comes from having cut my teeth as a gamer with Call of Cthulhu (I still remember the players going “we are the good guys” before being driven crazy by the Truth), but I never found the alignment rules attractive or interesting. Or maybe it’s just my upbringing.
A game concerned with the moral choices of the characters in a wide, dangerous moral grey area, Spire would be hindered by such a set of rules.

I don’t know if I’ll play this game anytime soon, but I’d certainly love to.
In the meantime, it’s a great reading, and as I said, a source of story ideas and inspirations.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “Elves and revolution

  1. I always found moral alignment a little boring, because a lot of motivations (a single word, or two words, to incline my character toward a specific conduit; the GM/DM that emits judgements seeing my adherence to my alignment – “roleplay experience points; etc.) and I feel myself confused, when I meet someone who love that rule.
    Well, as someone say, every cockroach is beautiful for its mother.

    This game setting seems interesting and even original in its approach. Rules are light, you say: are them even promising?


    • The system is pretty solid. Basically you build your character based on their experiences during their indentured service time, and their later life. This way you get skills, that give you dice pools. Tests are straightforward, but every action (no matter if a success or a failure) comes at a risk of stress – “blood stress” means wounds (in combat), “silver stress” is monetary loss (in bargaining situations), etc.
      The system reinforces the idea every action or choice comes at a cost, and that’s neat.
      I have yet to actually play it, but on paper the system works nicely, is very narrative-oriented, and is actually part of the setting, it adds to the flavor of the game.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Uh huh. The famed depravity of Zamoran women I always suspected was pretty much a fantasy of uncouth barbarians about civilized women in general. (See Leiber’s “The Snow Women” for a cogent take on this attitude.) Wasn’t unknown in historical cultures either. The ancient Greeks combined disgust with salacious fantasy to a high degree when they heard that Etruscan women attended banquets with their husbands instead of staying home like decent Greek wives. Clearly those banquets were orgiastic past most folks’ powers of description. (The Greek blokes wished.)


    • Ah, the biases of the past are certainly a thing to be taken in account, but in all fairness, I’ve obseerved a few attitudes, in modern fantasy readers, that are not as justified.


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