Preview: Heart – The City Beneath

Have you ever thought we throw ‘dungeon’ around a little too casually? That it shouldn’t conjure up clean stone corridors perfectly sized for heroes marching two abreast, brimming with treasure and level-appropriate villains, but rather something truly foul, dark and inscrutable? If so, you seem to have an ally in Heart: The City Beneath.

The quickstart guide, released as part of a Kickstarter campaign that’s smashing its way through stretch goals at time of writing, is a tight, beautiful little thing that offers a tempting bite of what’s to come in the finished product. And it truly is only a little nibble; after poring through the guide’s 50 pages I was left with more questions that I had when I first cracked it open.

That isn’t a bad thing, mind you.

Indeed, it’s actually rather fitting, as one of the game’s main themes seems to be the wild pursuit of the mysterious and unknowable. Sessions and campaigns see the party put this into practise by descending into the titular Heart – a weird, twisted labyrinth squatting beneath the city of Spire (home to Rowan, Rook & Decard’s last game), whose grasp on reality grows ever more tenuous as they slip through its gruesome layers.

These descents are the core of Heart, blending exploration with a strange kind of gloomy dungeon crawl. The adventure included in the guide, for example, sees the party of outcasts delve their way through ancient tunnels and arcane stairwells in search of a lost scrap of magic stored in a flooded vault. Along the way they explore the gloom, run into a few cultists and possibly negotiate with an eldritch sea-goddess.

Aside from the twist of the surreal, that might all be sounding like rather conventional fantasy RPG fare. However, while it certainly takes cues from the classic dungeon crawl, in practise Heart’s rules and general tone are all much closer to a storytelling game, with an emphasis on always keeping the narrative securely in the driving seat.

The Horrors Below

Perhaps the best example of this conceptual mash-up can be seen in character creation. Here you pick a class, but roughly equal weight is also attached to your ‘calling’ – the reason why you’re doing something as insanely dangerous as exploring the Heart. Both impact the powers and skills you have access to, but they also inform the stories you’re likely to tell.

It can be a little hard to wrap your head around, but this blend between traditional adventuring and freeform narrative runs throughout the entire game.

Take the advancement system, for example, where mechanical advances are tied to hitting certain story beats. Instead of levelling up by stabbing a certain number of goblins or completing quests, characters instead gain new skills and powers by, say, meeting an NPC who brings back unpleasant memories or by getting the absolute crap kicked out of them while exploring.

It’s a curious little system that seems, at first glance, to be ripe for exploitation by canny players keen to turn every minor character and random roll into a chance for progress.

However, in reality this is exactly what Heart wants its players to do – to push themselves into stories and embrace the weird coincidences that are a natural consequence of the flaky state of reality. GM’s are encouraged (if not outright required) to talk over the players’ goals before kicking off the session and ensure that they get a chance to fulfil them.

Depth and Dice

Standing arm-in-arm (or possibly claw-in-tentacle) with these story-led elements are the rules and mechanics that guide them.

For the most part these are incredibly slick and simple. Every check and challenge in the game works with the same basic mechanic – characters assemble a pool of dice based on whether they have an appropriate skill or are in their favoured environment, and try to roll high. Success usually isn’t too hard to come by, but unless they roll particularly well there’s a good chance they’ll take some kind of stress anyway.

In fact, keeping track of this stress is one of the few times that the players are going to need to fiddle with numbers at all, as the amount of stat-tracking in Heart is incredibly low. Character sheets barely have any actual digits on them and almost every aspect of their skills and abilities is binary – either you have a skill or you don’t. Despite this, every character in the quickstart is incredibly distinct from the others.

However, while the more abstracted take on mechanics helps to keep the story flowing, the intentionally vague nature of things can sometimes seem a little out of place. For example, combat seems as though it will be a significant part of the game – it’s a twisted take on the dungeon crawler, after all – but the rules around it are a little thin on the ground.

Everything is handled with the same story-driven, hands-off approach as the rest of game, with no hard limit on when they can act, how many actions they take or what their enemies can or can’t do. There’s a handful of guidelines, but nothing that really approaches rules.

Now, this kind of system is common in plenty of other games that emphasise the storytelling over number-crunching, but usually they only feature combat as a sparse, exceptional moment of violence and horror. If Heart does indeed feature regular battles with deformed and be-clawed horrors, it’ll be interesting to see if the raw narrative can maintain the fun without falling back on the more tactical, regimented mechanics most stab-happy games favour.

Craving More

Actually, there’s a lot about Heart that I’m rather interested to see. Some of these are rules, but in all honesty I’m mostly just fascinated by the world.

There are titbits of lore and story scattered throughout the quickstart, but there’s something about the tone that keeps me wanting to find out more and more about the dark depths of the Heart. The imagination on display in every page is unparalleled, and though its dark body-horror fever dreams won’t be to everybody’s tastes you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it isn’t incredibly creative.

Reading through the Heart quickstart has left me struck with burning curiosity for the unknown. That really is very, very appropriate.

The Kickstarter for Heart: The City Beneath is running until October 17 2019.

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