Tonight was my little gaming group’s second game of Heart, the upcoming tabletop RPG from Rowan, Rook, and Decard. I kickstarted it because I very much enjoyed the Spire game that is a counterpart to this new game. Where Spire is about resisting the oppression of the aelfir in a mile-high city above, Heart is about delving into the crazy red mysteries of the mile-deep city beneath.
We’re playing the quickstart, which uses pregens, a stripped down version of the rules, and a straightforward adventure involving eels. To be honest, they had me at “supernatural seawater ruins festival and floods tunnels” because I am always happy to explore my deep rooted fear of, and fascination with, deep water.
Because we live in Cumbria, London, a slightly different bit of London, and basically London but more rural, we play via the interwebnet. Discord provides our comms because it is simple, and Roll20 provides our virtual tabletop.
Taking a leaf from my mate Wicksey, we don’t try to put maps down or move miniatures about or whatever – the tabletop is a shared space where we use cards and pictures-stolen-from-the-internet to create a bit of atmosphere. It works reasonably well I think as long as I do the prep to make some cards and rip some pictures into shape. Plus you can roll dice on it and I do like dice. Oh, and it has a nice library of sound effects, some of them Spire specific, which are really helpful for covering the awkward silences.
John (Exploring Roll20 interface) “Hey! I’ve just noticed you can draw on this thing!”
Raff: “Well, you’re the artist, John.”
John (gleeful): “I can certainly draw a penis!”
Raff (Sighing)”… you’re so Clive Barker.”
John (gleefuller) “I’ll take it!”
Three Musketeers (Kinda)
It’s a small game – with this kind of improv heavy story game I like a smaller team of people I can riff off. It cuts down on the workload.
As with Spire, the character classes in Heart are familiar and different at the same time. They’re traditional delvers seen through the askew glass of body horror, madness, despair, and guns. While none of them grab me quite as much as the Spire classes did (Ranger-as-cannibal-priest-with-a-hyena, Rogue-as-masked-functionary-who-can-go-anywhere-as-long-as-they-act-like-a-servant, Alternate-universe-skipping-train-mage and the like), that may well be because we’re dealing with pregens rather than classes as such. The Junk Mage, the Hound (world weary fighter from a lost legion), and the Vermissian Knight (eldritch-train-knight) all have a lot of potential in my opinion.
Our little team is… well it’s a bit dysfunctional if I’m honest.
John is Lynd, a crazy murder-hobo who is also a witch and jumps at every opportunity to unleash her crazy magic to make everything provably worse. He “helped” protect the Festival of Ribbons and Bells at doomed Devisse by turning into a horrible blood-red horror with tentacles and animated entrails and massive claws.
Mark is Ynneth, a junk mage – warlock-as-addict – who occasionally consumes things no sane person should consume and channels the magic of a deadly underwater queen. He mostly pokes things he shouldn’t and enjoys being able to survive underwater while looking for magic items to snort.
Clive is the sane member of the party – Tenacity Malrique, priestess of the weird Moon Beneath that is in no way an unspeakable aberration misunderstood as a goddess. She is definitely not a heretic. She has a special shield and I think may have more than a little “drow Captain America” to her.
The system is straightforward, almost the same as Spire but with some minor twiddles – the Resistance toolbox which involves the widespread “failure and, failure, success but, success” approach. Comparing it to Spire, the player characters (at least the quickstart ones) seem less generally competent – in that they are often rolling fewer dice. They have more wacky powers though so it maybe balances out?
Clive put forward the supposition after our first session that this is because the game is more horror than action – although there is action enough in it. He might be right. It’s certainly got a more horror vibe to it. Dungeons and Dragons plus body horror plus unspeakable weirdness rather than ten-foot corridors and plentiful torches.
Clive: “To be honest, I’m not sure this is the group people would have made if we’d been making characters.”
(Nobody looks at John’s crazy murder hobo blood-and-curses Witch)
I like the quickstart adventure – I like the way it’s set up. It feels like it’s been pretty obviously built for the pregen party with plenty of obvious episodes for all of them (including the two extras who are not appearing in this three-person mission) to shine.
One of the elements of the game that differs from Spire is how experience works. Each character has a “calling” that represents their reason for being in the underworld (seeking enlightenment, forced to hide out in the dungeon, poking the terrible source of madness and chaos at the heart of the underdark etc etc), and that gives them a list of beats. At the start of each session, each player picks two “beats” from that list and this forms a sort of contract with the GM – I’ll try to get opportunities to follow those beats into the session. If they follow the leads i drop, and “succeed” (for a given value) they get an advance – basically its a dynamic advancement system.
All the beats are aimed towards thematically supporting that calling at the table. It’s very neat
I’ve encountered two problems here, but they are both minor. Because we play two hours at a time, roughly, I’m looking for opportunities to put one of their beats into play every two sessions or so. If we were playing longer games it’d be less of an issue.
There’s also a few problems with how much I’m meant to force them. Clive/Tenacity chose “make a dramatic entrance that is a risky proposition” and I found that a good deal harder to try and set up than “rescue someone from peril”, or Mark/Ynneth’s “find a text that will aid you” or John/Lynd’s “suffer minor Echo fallout” which was basically guaranteed to happen at some point (and resulted in him spewing baby eels everywhere, then learning from the experience).
Two things worked really well about advancement – firstly because “pick an advance” is pretty straightforward the characters “levelled up” as part of playing and chose advances that suited the circumstances of their beats. Clive/Tenacity saves people from the flood and masters the Compel skill (basically the basic social skill). Mark finds walls covered in notes about the area and uses them to master the Delve skill. John vomits tiny supernatural eels everywhere to the horror of all his companions and through them learns the Endure skill. Stuff like that.
The second thing was that the beats presented for each character all seem to be activities that encourage risky play – whether its inviting fallout (negative repercussions for your character), or flinging open sealed doors to see what’s on the other side, or throwing yourself in harms’ way to protect an injured soldier.
John: “It could just be fish.”
Mark: “It’s never just fucking fish!”
John (gleeful): “Sharks are fish!”
If I had a criticism its that the adventure-as-written is a little linear. The mechanism for creating interesting adventures in the underworld is not entirely dissimilar to the old fourth edition skill challenge – or a combat. The characters do things and chip away at the difficulty of the “delve” they are on – delves being journeys between point A and point B whatever they happen to be. Success means they get closer to their destination, failure means they don’t and will ultimately lead to complications.
I worried a bit that the delve we did tonight – guiding a bunch of refugees on makeshift rafts through flooded train tunnels – would have felt railroady but I am assured not. Because it’s not using a strict “here is the dungeon, there are orcs in this room” approach I often had to come up with interesting obstacles, challenges, and descriptions on the fly to stop the game just being a succession of “Delve + Warren” rolls until the party reached their next destination.
There’s a list of suggestions in the adventure, and I threw in some stuff inspired by computer games primarily Fallout (malfunctioning effulgent energy devices sparking under the water that needed turning off or circumventing; crazy writing on tunnel walls; a great sump cavern with some odd things in the depths). Given the area had a feel of “twisting tunnels” and “technology” it seemed to work okay.
I didn’t do as much with the refugees the party were escorting as I could have – treating them as a bunch of faceless NPCs was inevitable given the temporal constraints of the session. They were alternately enthused by Mark’s dangerous ideas, encouraged by Clive’s conviction, and horrified by whatever batshit occult body horror John was getting up to.
Raff: “So, what are you doing to help people up the rusted ladder, Lynd?”
Clive: “She doesn’t need to do anything. They’re all terrified of her.”
Raff: “A good point, well made. The remaining few refugees scramble up the ladder as fast as they can to get away from the horrible shapechanging cursemonger behind them.”
All things considered I’m enjoying Heart. I don’t know how much longevity it has – I think we’ve got two or maybe three more sessions in this adventure and it’s several months still until the game actually ships.
I’m finding it harder to improvise whole comparatively open-ended dungeon delves than it was to (for example) improvise around a heist in Blades in the Dark but I’m still enjoying it. I’m not quite in the zone yet, but I had great fun with the little meat lilies that John conjured with his “make-everything-worse” power, and with the improvised baby eels fallout that made the visit to Sump #32 even more fraught with danger, and if I could just remember that Mark has a dog more often I’d be pretty ‘appy.
One thing I am certain of is that it is a much better fit for the small party I have; the time constraints; and the fact we are playing over t’internet than Dungeons and Dragons or a more traditional fantasy tabletop game might be. The advantage of games that are just people talking is that they are just people talking so you can be scattered across the whole of England without it causing problems.
My one regret is that just as I was introducing an unspeakable aquatic behemoth to attack the party with I noticed the time and realised it was later than I thought. I suspect it might now follow the party so it can jump out at them at a later date. If anyone asks, it was foreshadowing.
Clive (as Tenacity): “Thank you for taking us in.”
Raff (as Sister Arielle): “Don’t thank me yet. We haven’t discussed the price for our aid… And that’s where we’ll leave it for tonight.”
Having someone feed you the line that lets you end the session on just the right note? Priceless.