We’re going to do previews of each of the four Heart sourcebooks we’re writing to release alongside the core book. First up, SANCTUM:
SANCTUM was previously titled ABSOLUTION, but as we wrote it, we realised that ABSOLUTION didn’t make any sense as a title so we changed it.
(That’s one of the challenges with stretch goals, especially when you work as organically as we do: you end up having to tweak things after the fact.)
SANCTUM is divided into two parts. Firstly, there’s an in-depth guide to working with the players to build a haven – an island of relative calm in the gristly chaos of the Heart – for them to defend and support. The gameplay of the core Heart experience assumes that the player characters are going to be moving around a lot, so we wanted to split out the idea of haven-based play into a separate volume.
While Heart isn’t a political game – there aren’t really rules for it, and we only have a single social skill – we wanted to come up with a quick and easy way to create some tension within the haven to spur drama. Each haven has three faces – people who represent different philosophies in the landmark – called the caretaker, the rebel and the voice. These three people act as a way to communicate the difficulties and decisions that the haven must face without getting bogged down in relationship maps. because at the end of the day, Heart is a game about descending into a nightmare undercity in search of answers, not about brokering village council disputes.
As with all our work, we’ve tried to add rules by expanding on existing concepts rather than adding sub-systems. To that end, you’ll be able to find Haven-specific fallout, triggered as normal, that reflects the dangers of having people rely on you for support.
THE OPPOSITE OF PEOPLE
The second part of the book is devoted to our favourite type of adversary – the angel, agents and messengers of the Heart Itself, alien creatures whose arrival is heralded by a scraping, screeching song of rust and entropy. We’ve detailed four new types of angel for use in your games, and they’re described in appropriately mad prose by Gris Hannemann – a human travel writer, drug addict and inveterate liar. You can read the unfortunate tale of Mr Hannmann below:
The four new additions are more specialised than the standard angel: the Blossom angel is a twitching, muscled lump of chaos that can impart the Cursed domain into the landmark in which it occupies; The Cacophony angel is a bone-armoured battering ram that sings a nosebleed song with a dozen mouths; the Logos angel, a walking sense organ, gets less visible the more people are looking for it; and the Penumbra angel delivers sanity-blasting revelations to the worthy and curious.
Put both parts of the book together, and you get the ability to build unique, engaging settlements within the Heart – and then destroy them utterly with horrific creatures with inscrutable motivations. Which is fun, we think.
There is a disease, deep in the City Beneath, that worms its way inside the blood and binds the victim to the place; they become a part of something far greater than themselves. Those who have made such a bond are called witches, and are viewed with a mixture of suspicion and awe by the other inhabitants of the Heart.
Each strain of the disease has a lineage and history associated with it, and witches are careful not to infect those who they think would squander the gift. This long tradition, combined with the way that some witches can easily kill the average person simply by glancing at them, means that the sect is treated as nobility, or emissaries of the Heart Itself; they are almost fae-like, existing in their own world of strange practices and esoteric arts whispered from teacher to student over several centuries.
The witches’ base of power is Hallow, a ramshackle town built within a burned-out cathedral within the Heart; almost every witch has passed through there, is going to pass through there, or is trying to avoid it at all costs.
The witch has two core abilities, and they’re both rather neat:
CRUCIBLE represents the way that they take energy from the Heart and transmute it into magical power using ritual and rite. At any time, the player can roll a D6; if it’s equal to or lower than the amount of Echo stress they have marked (Echo stress being the warping effects of the Heart on the body and soul), they clear that much stress and roll with mastery when they next use magic. If it’s higher than their current Echo stress, they mark that much stress .
This gives them a quick-release value for Echo stress, which is good, because they have no other way of soaking it.
Secondly, TRUE FORM allows them to – in fact, forces them to – turn into a terrifying unreal monster at moments of extreme stress. Once in their true form (we use the phrase “flickering zoetrope horror” a lot to describe it) they roll with mastery on Hunt and Kill actions, but everything else becomes riskier to achieve.
Witches are the fae royalty of the Heart, and their abilities are appropriately grandiose and mystical.
GREAT AND TERRIBLE allows them to fully control the transformation into their true form, and can be further upgraded to stun anyone, or anything, that sees them change into inaction. (Even Angels of the Heart are given pause when witnessing such majesty.) THE OLD BLOOD lets them view auras; DIVINITY gives them access to the secret places where witches are revered as messengers of the Heart Itself. DISTINGUISHED LINEAGE lets you offload stress onto bonds without risking fallout, as people are used to just doing what you say and dealing with the consequences themselves.
They are, of course, magicians too. EXSANGUINATE allows them the option of yanking a pint or two out of their target’s mouth and nose, and it can be upgraded to not need line of sight as long as they have a sympathetic token. ASCENDANCY rewrites the world around them into something raw and bestial that they alone control; CRIMSON MIRROR lets they use their blood to scry into the future and determine what’s going to happen on a delve before they leave their haven; WILD-WITCH lets them brew healing drafts from animal bones and wild mushrooms.
No witch would be complete without their FAMILIAR; in Heart, familiars are used as a place to put harm sustained from casting – or being the target of – magic. They can be improved through training, or heartsblood transfusions, to become expert trackers and attack beasts.
And, crucially, being a witch gives you access to a LAIR. I’m just going to post the whole ability below, because I think you’ll like it:
As a witch, you have three endgame options:
THE RED QUEEN puts you in charge of the witches of Hallow, for a time, and lets you control their immense power until you’re overwhelmed and must be interred in the Red Vaults beneath the settlement.
FINAL FORM transforms you into a mighty, landmark-spanning version of your true form; you decide who lives and dies within your domain. You fade away, gradually, etching yourself into the spirit of the place.
PERFECT RESURRECTION lets you make an absolutely perfect copy of someone who’s died, right down to the soul; and what’s more, now they can never die again, and will just wake up naked and screaming in the City Beneath a month after their current body is destroyed. They don’t get a say in this, but you know what’s best.
The witch was the first class we wrote for Heart. In fact, we wrote it before we started writing Heart; it’s from the Black Magic sourcebook for Spire, where it was called the Blood-Witch and was a bit… gorier. They were the weirdest class by far, which is saying something when you consider the others.
In our first draft of Heart, they were the Crimson Aspirant, which sounds a bit daft now I write it out loud in public; they were witches-in-training, en route to the Heart to acquire the disease. But we realised that someone who didn’t have any magical powers in a game where every other bugger had them wasn’t hugely interesting, so we widened them out to be carriers of the disease in general, and we got to speak about the culture of witches in the City Beneath too.
We originally had them split between two facets – the wild witches, who live under trees and shout at wolves, and the noble witches, who live in houses and shout at people. With the arrival of the cleaver as a stretch goal during the campaign, we realised that we were trying to do too much with the class, and cover too many bases. We cut away the wilder elements from the witch and portioned them off into the cleaver, and firmly positioned the class as Heart nobility – from blood, but not from parentage.
The true form of the witch – something which has always been iconic to them – is inspired in part by horror movies where weird-looking creepy people move in ways that people shouldn’t move. Chris watches these; I don’t, and instead just look at clips that he sends over. This test footage from Mama is pretty much what we imagine when a witch pops into true form, but with more cockroaches and flickering.
Secondly, we’ve significantly reduced our shipping costs to the US thanks to efficient distribution and no small amount of awkward zip code data entry. Postage to the United States should be around $5 for our hardback books, which hopefully makes them a bit more accessible to those of you across the pond. If you’d like to order something, check out our online store here.
In other news, we’re quietly plugging away on Heart – we just finished the landmarks section, and we’re excited to see how you and your groups fare in the cursed and disorientating City Beneath. We’re still on schedule to have the text finished and ready for proofreading in the new year.
The Vermissian is cursed. Intended as a revolutionary mass transit system within the city – the first in the world of its kind – the creators attempted to pierce the Heart Itself in order to power its engines, and unleashed a nightmare unreality throughout the dark corners of Spire. Within the bounds of the Vermissian, time and space come unstuck – but it provides limitless potential for those brave enough to explore it.
The Vermissian Knights are brave enough to explore it. They are protectors, avengers and guides for those who would step into the thrice-damned tunnels; they wear uncanny powered armour made from repurposed train parts, and channel the network’s loose grasp on reality into strange technologies.
The Vermissian Knight used to have the core ability SHORTCUT, which made delving quicker. But it felt unbalanced, and also cut out quite a lot of the fun part of the game, so after playtesting we decided to swap it out. Having spent a while talking about what was the core image of the Knight, we kept coming back to their armour – hulking, semi-powered, repurposed and mysterious. We made it their core power.
Now, with VERMISSIAN PLATE, the Knight can consume resources with the Occult or Technology domain – presumably by repairing it with them or just shoving them into the furnace – to power it up once per session. You can find full details of this in the Quickstart game, but suffice to say it lets you, for example, burn the pages of a magic tome inside your suit and wreath yourself in shadowed energy to gain the Sneak skill, or ignite the parasite-ridden bark of the Blighted to release the resonance within and smash apart your enemies.
Want to kill big things? The Vermissian Knight has an ability specifically devoted to that! DRAGON KILLER improves your damage and defence against anything that’s significantly larger than you, and in the Heart, lots of things are significantly larger than you. Upgrade it enough and you can summon a particular monster that’s hunting you – it’s still hunting you, but it might well kill some of your other problems along the way.
AETHERIC FIELD protects you from the weird energies of the City Beneath, and allows you to reroute ambient power into augmenting your attacks or overwhelm adversaries with waves of force. ECHOING RAILS allows you to find back doors to the Vermissian – even if they weren’t there when you previously checked – and access moving haunts to heal your wounds and gain respite. GUARDIAN puts you into a classic knightly role; you become better at defending something, no matter what that is, and you inspire those around you to greatness.
We wrote the Vermissian Knight first, and the first Zenith power we wrote for them is THE LAST TRAIN, which informed a great deal of the rest of the abilities in the game. Using THE LAST TRAIN summons The Last Train – the only remaining functional locomotive on the Vermissian network, which is unable to ever stop and is only loosely steerable – and it smashes apart everything in the area. Here it is:
There are others, too; becoming electricity and blinking between Technology landmarks, or punching with the power of a flat-out engine, but THE LAST TRAIN is the one that really sums up the Knight for us.
Take a Paladin. (Paladins get a bad rap, I reckon.) Remove the whole “god” bit and replace it with a furious desire to protect people; to impose structure and understanding on a world that defies it. Combine that Paladin with Iron Man, because powered armour is cool. Channel the Vermissian Sage class from Spire into it, so none of the technology works properly and no-one understands how it functions, and tinge everything with the occult.
That’s the Vermissian Knight. The big turning point on was seeing Felix’s art – we knew that the Knight was cool, but seeing the dude in armour looking battered and faintly sci-fi really sealed the deal. Have I mentioned, also, how I’ve been playing Warhammer 40,000 for the last twenty years, and always been quietly fascinated with the blend of high-tech and low-tech that that game has? Maybe you can see my obsession in the Knight.
The Knight is easy to play; they’re a knight, and knights hit things and protect people. (In roleplaying games, at least. The less said about knights in real life the better.) They’re the Fighter class, for want of a better word, and they do the protecting and hitting that Fighters do, but they also have a special domain that’s all their own – the Vermissian. More than any other class, the Vermissian Knight allows the player to claim spotlight time and show off their abilities.
There is power in the Heart; ancient power, not quite asleep and not quite awake, burrowed in the red heaven beneath the earth. Gods sealed away for their crimes; extradimensional entities taking advantage of the tattered walls between the worlds; great sorcerers of ages past, now immortalised and far, far from the people they once were. Limitless potential, roiling away out of sight.
The Junk Mage is going to steal it. The Junk Mage – the sort of wizard who’s hooked on bad magic, the sort of wizard who makes up spells as they go along, the sort of wizard whose brain itches with scintillating madness – siphons off power from otherworldly sources and hopes they don’t notice. The risks are great, but what power comes without risk?
The Junk Mage works better when they’re slightly insane. If they have four or more Mind stress, they roll with mastery when using magic to achieve their aims. Seeing how fluid the fiction is in Heart, “using magic to achieve their aims” is a pretty broad category. We want to encourage players to show off how weird their characters are by drawing magic into their descriptions; a Junk Mage using the Mend skill, for example, could whisper broken items and bones back together, leaving spectral spiderweb over the pieces. Or set them alight, and have a new, repaired version emerge from the ashes and smoke. Mechanically, it’s the same as sitting down with some glue and string, but it’s up to you how magical you want your character to be.
So: by holding on to a little bit of Mind stress, but not suffering fallout, they do better at their jobs. This puts them into a knife-edge balance where they’ll want to freak themselves out a bit – expose themselves to the unnatural and strange – and then channel the stress into power.
They also get access to SACRIFICE, which allows them to destroy Occult resources in order to placate their – well, patrons isn’t the phrase, more “the beings that they’re stealing power from.” Consuming appropriate resource allows them to gain protection on their next magical action, allowing them to avoid taking stress and operate more reliably, at a cost.
Junk Mages are, fundamentally, warlocks. (Just over half of the classes in Heart are warlocks, if you squint.) We wanted to use this as an opportunity to talk about the powers beyond the veil in the world of Heart; the big stuff that’s happening off-screen, and not central to the Heart vs Real World conflict that’s at the core of the game.
So: the Junk Mage uses elemental magic. Fire, Water, and Earth – we couldn’t come up with anything interesting enough for Air, so it got cut. The entity for Fire is some kind of unreal beyond-space-and-time red dragon; the entity for Water is the Drowned Queen, a colonialist monarch who’s also an extradimensional eel; the entities for Earth are the Stone Chorus, who are the Titans from Greek mythology but with added angst.
Each comes with dominion over two things – their Blessing (which is their governing element) and their Curse (which is their fundamental flaw – the Drowned Queen, for example, is very dead and this gives her power over ghosts). There’s no limit to how many entities you can access, assuming you’ve got the major advances to spend, so you can steal power from as many places as you like.
Generally, the zenith abilities for the Junk Mage – the highest ones available to them – involve them bonding with the entities in some way. They also kill the user, because of course they do. The Drowned Queen offers up her hand in marriage to the caster as they summon her into the material realm and she seeks to make a pact to cement the transition. This gives the Junk Mage total control over a landmark, and all of its inhabitants, but the mental strain of being married to a mad ghost eel from beyond space and time is too much to bear for long.
We like warlocks.
They were always the best class in D&D 3.5; not the most powerful, but one of the most fun to play. They had spells you could cast as many times as you want rather than having to faff about with spellbooks and eight hours of rest; they were thematically interesting, rather than the grab-bag of everything that wizards and sorcerers ended up being. We didn’t have many warlock-like classes in Spire, so Heart presented us with a nice opportunity to talk about the weirdos who practice dangerous magic.
The first draft of the Junk Mage (back when they were called the Gutter Mage) had much more traditional occultism – hands of glory, hearts with nails in, dream-quests for ominous doors, black candles, etc. It was good but it didn’t say anything about the world, and the best classes help sketch out the setting around the player. So we overhauled them, put the old-school magic to one side, and made them desperate addicts instead.
“Junk Magic” is an old term of ours – we came up with it, oh, six years ago? It’s in an unpublished novel about drunk wizards that Grant wrote, and it crops up in our game Royal Blood too. It’s magical hacking, lying to demons, throwing together spells from fragments found here and there, casting by the seat of your pants. It felt like a natural fit for the lawless environs of the City Beneath. We’ve also leaned into the other meanings of Junk, too; each Junk Mage is an addict, hooked on the rush of sensation they get when they plumb their tiny, fragile human mind into something huge and powerful. They’re garbage, too – no magical school worth their salt would accept them through their doors.
In a world where your wizard is full of alien bees, your witch is afflicted with a magical blood disease she caught from a well that’s also a mouth and your fighter is wearing armour they stole off a cursed train, the Junk Mage gives players and GMs a way to drop weird and exotic stuff into the game and have it still make an impact.
The Heart is a parasitic dimension – one of chaos and disorder that manifests as blood, and bone, and ever-changing boundaries. The Deep Apiarist is the antithesis of the Heart; both a vessel for and part of an otherworldly megaconsciousness called the Hive, a primordial force of order that takes the form of thousands upon thousands of glyph-marked Deep Bees. They keep the bees – in hives, and within their wax-filled bodies – and do their best to keep the Heart at bay.
The Deep Apiarist is a magical weirdo. Are most of the classes in Heart magical weirdos? Yes. But they take it to a new level, we’d like to think. Their core ability represents the fact that they’ve plumbed their mind into something otherworldly and terrible; at the start of every situation, they clear all stress from Mind as the Hive dissipates it through itself. However, they can never receive Mind protection, or remove stress from Mind in any way aside from using their core ability. Which makes them an interesting blend of fragile and sturdy; they don’t need to worry about going mad so long as they can catch their breath for a minute, but they can’t stop stress from coming in.
Also, crucially – and there aren’t rules for this bit, it’s just a thing that happens – every Deep Apiarist is partially filled with bees. You can take advances to give the bees specific powers and abilities, but as standard, at least one of your organs is a wax copy made and operated by the swarm.
There are two main strands of ability in the Deep Apiarist class. Firstly, there’s the way that they’re the opposite of the Heart – we wanted to double down on the fact that the Hive is as otherworldly as the Heart Itself, and opposed to it, whilst being completely distinct from drow, humans, aelfir etc. This manifests as powers which let them control probability (making Risky or Dangerous actions safer) or just outright stating what they want to happen and, through clever manipulation of sufficiently advanced bee technology, making it so. Or maybe you want to tear through heartblooded creatures; the ANNIHILATION ability turns your body into a living engine of unchaos that burns away the Heart with a touch.
Secondly, there’s the way that they’re full of bees. (Obviously.) We toyed with the idea of giving them a Mind heal power by making honey in their chest cavity for a while but that’s too gross even for Heart; so instead they can choose to create sacrificial bees whose narcotic sting brings sweet oblivion. Or spread their consciousness out through the swarm, seeing through a hundred compound eyes. Or just set their bees on people.
The ultimate expressions of the Deep Apiarists’ power is crystallisation; to encase something of the Heart in unbreakable hexagonal mineral and leave it there forever. So you can do that, and permanently stop anything you don’t like, but the strain of manifesting means your consciousness is lost entirely within the Hive. Alternatively, if you’re tired of a haven misbehaving – being full of unpredictable people, shifting in position around the Heart, riven with internecine conflict – you can take it over and become its Queen, and watch it fall into perfect order.
Or maybe you just become a swarm of occult bees and can never die.
Hello. My name is Grant Howitt and my favourite kind of monster is where you have lots of little monsters inside a larger monster.
There’s something horrific about it. I first came across it in World of Darkness – there’s a monster which is a load of rats inside someone, and they fight magical extradimensional spiders, so you can see some overlap with our Order versus Chaos trope too. I would also like to give credit to The Secret World, which has extradimensional bees who fight… extradimensional dirt? Flies? It’s not entirely clear. No new ideas under the sun, anyway.
The Deep Apiarists themselves originated in Black Magic, a sourcebook for Spire, in which they were an extra advance that any character could take (if they wanted to fill themselves full of bees). We were toying with making it a full class for a while but, as far as revolutionary efforts go, there’s not a lot of room for a buzzing weirdo whose primary job is to counteract the energies of the Heart.
There’s a lot of room for that in Heart. So; we took what they had in Spire and extrapolated on it, widened it, tried to offer a bit of variety. Also, we wanted to underline the fact that the Hive isn’t benevolent (or malevolent) towards people in general – it’s an outsider, something that can only exist in very specific terms, and it craves structure and order. It uses Deep Apiarists like armoured personnel carriers on the front lines of a war, and one of the fun things about playing one is to toy with the divide between yourself and megaconsciousness you’ve become a part of.
In two weeks’ time we’re going to release the playtest document for Heart, our next big game – and if you’d like to help shape it from the ground up, we’d love for you to be part of our alpha playtest community. (If you don’t want to read any more and just want to sign up for the playtest straight away, click here.)
WHAT IS HEART?
Set in the Heart – the nightmare, unreal labyrinth that pulses and writhes beneath the city of Spire – Heart is a game about damnation, redemption, survival and obsession. It’s also a game about body horror, walls made of breathing meat, and exploring a possibly-malevolent parasite dimension. It’s also a game about dungeon-crawling, at the base of it; we wanted to take the classic story of descending into a dangerous underworld and see what twist we could put on it.
We’ve got amazing illustrations from Felix Miall (we’ve posted some of them here, you can’t miss ‘em) and layout from Jay Iles.
We’re going to Kickstart Heart towards the end of 2019, but before then, we want to see if we can make it really, really good.
CAN YOU JUST GIVE ME A LIST OF COOL THINGS THAT ARE IN HEART WITH NO CONTEXT?
Of course! In the playtest document alone, you can expect to find:
Flightless owl hives
Heretic priests of the Moon Beneath
Platemail made out of repurposed train parts
A mimetic virus that makes you build labyrinths
Full rules for accidentally becoming a messiah
The Ravening Beast, a hunting dog that hides in your thoughts
WHAT DO YOU NEED FROM ME?
We need you to play it. Get your friends together, make some characters, and play out a few games using the rules in the PDF. We’ll have some questionnaires for you to fill out, talk about how the game felt, ask you what you liked and disliked, and so on. We’ll need you to actually play it – we want to see how it performs in practice.
We’ve tried to make Heart as easy as possible to run, and made it so that a GM and players can sit down with very little planning and improvise a session on the fly. (However, if you want to draw out your own mad undercity and expose your players to it, you’re welcome to spend as much time as you want to prepare for a session.)
WHAT’S IN THE PLAYTEST PACK?
The document will feature full rules for running games of Heart – the core systems at play, but also mechanics for exploring and mapping the undercity, making and reinforcing connections between landmarks, and developing relationships with the people you meet down there. We also have five of the (planned) nine classes, and five callings – reasons that you’ve chosen to explore the shifting, dangerous world of the Heart.
Finally, there are some details on the world of Heart – landmarks, havens, incidental details, non-player characters, and adversaries – and a scenario to run through, if you wish. It’s not representative of the final product, but it’s enough to be going on with for our purposes.
There will also be links to an exclusive Discord community for early discussion of the game, as well as at least one feedback form we’ll ask you to complete to help us improve the game.
WHAT RULES DOES IT USE?
Heart uses a modified version of the Resistance system that we created for Spire. Some of the skills and resistances you’ll recognise – we still have a Blood resistance to measure how hurt you are, and a Sneak skill to go unnoticed. Others are new and designed to tell stories unique to exploring a body-warping magical city – Echo resistance shows how much the Heart has changed you, for example, and Supplies resistance shows how much spireblack your lantern has to burn before it sputters out and leaves you in pitch darkness.
We’ve streamlined down some of the systems from Spire, making them (hopefully) easier to use on the fly.
We’ve focused on making fallout smoother to use in play and, with the addition of Critical fallout, used it to give your character a descending arc as misfortune and pain are poured upon them. We’ve added a little more complexity to the combat system, because there’s more of it in Heart, but not a great deal (and we aren’t using tactical maps or anything like that).
The systems will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s played Spire, and we hope you enjoy the tweaks we’ve made.
IS THIS A SPIRE PRODUCT?
It’s not – it’s completely standalone. However, we will continue to support the Spire line – we’re in the process of writing our next supplement right now and will continue, if demand stays high, to release a new major sourcebook on a yearly basis.
WHERE DO I SIGN UP?
Fill out the form below and, once it’s all ready to go, we’ll send you a download link to the PDF documentation.