You ever come across a piece of media that’s so perfectly tailored to your personal tastes it makes you a little upset? That’s how I feel about Heart: The City Beneath. Like, who are you, Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor, and how did you get such a solid read on me?
So check it out: Heart is a narrative roleplaying game that uses the classic dungeon-delving formula to tell stories of body horror and self-destructive obsession. It has a solid core resolution system and a genuinely nail-biting Stress/Fallout mechanic which I’ll get into later, but what initially drew me in — what made me fall in love with this thing before I even had a chance to run it — was the specificity with which it establishes its setting. There was a trend in indie games for a while of making things as vague as possible, designing systems to emulate genre without a specific setting in mind and leaving the nitty-gritty of worldbuilding up to the players and the game master (GM). While this approach had its advantages and gave us some truly amazing games, it also left quite a few of them feeling like they lacked a distinct creative identity of their own. Heart pushes back against this trend. Not, thank god, with the traditional approach of pages upon pages of meaningless lore, but by baking its unique and captivating world into its mechanics on such a fundamental level that the two become virtually inseparable.
And what a world it is — off-kilter punk fantasy drenched in body horror and weird science, evocative of the very best of the ephemeral New Weird literary movement filtered through a post-Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) lense. It is easily one of my all-time favorite role playing game (RPG) settings, and, due to the system’s aforementioned specificity, one that shines through on every level of mechanical engagement. For example, character creation: you’re not just a Fighter or a Wizard, you’re a Vermissian Knight (power armored warrior-scholar hailing from a cursed railway system), a Deep Apiarist (mathematical druid whose body plays host to a swarm of extradimensional bees), a half-dead Ghostwalker, a magic-addicted Junk Mage, or something even weirder. Your class here isn’t just your skillset, it’s an anchor grounding you in a bizarre and unfamiliar fictional setting, establishing who you are and where you came from in this alien society. Or rather, who you were before you abandoned your old life and decided to risk everything in the hungry, ever-shifting darkness below the world.
Oh yes, the eponymous Heart isn’t just representative of how in love I am with Lady Salvatious Gryndel (page 204), it’s also a place — a kind of self-aware megadungeon perpetually rebuilding itself in an inexpert approximation of the hopes and fears and desires of those brave or foolish enough to try and carve out a life within it. In any such environment, there’s going to be work that needs doing that people don’t want to do themselves — hence, the player characters.
It’s a dangerous life to lead, as evidenced by the inclusion of the game’s standout mechanic: Stress and Fallout. Essentially, Stress is an abstract measurement of how much your character is pushing their luck at any given moment, and Fallout is a bunch of horrible things that can happen to you once your luck runs out. There are a few distinct categories of Stress tied to stuff like physical well-being, mental stability, supernatural corruption and so forth, which build up as you fail skill checks and the metaphorical sword of Damocles lowers over your character’s head. Eventually, inevitably, you roll under your current Stress count and it solidifies into a Fallout, which is sometimes general but often tied to the sinister geography or corrupting nature of the Heart itself. There is an entire chapter of Fallouts, and it is wonderful.
As the Fallout mounts up, you’re eventually going to come to the realization that at some point this place is going to get the best of you. If your character is lucky, that means death. If not, well… take a look at your character sheet. There is not a single class in this game whose capstone ability does not result in either their death or horrific alteration such that they are no longer viable as a player character. Many of these could conceivably be played out as cathartic or redemptive moments, but that doesn’t make it any less chilling every time you leaf through the book to check some rules text and catch a glimpse of the basilisk lurking at the end of your skill tree.
If there’s one place the game falls short, it’s on the GM side of things. While the player’s experience is pure storygame, the GM’s is surprisingly traditional in that it expects you to do a lot of prep and basically leaves you to your own devices moment to moment. I had built up enough trad game muscle memory from all those times I was forced to run D&D in high school that the problem wasn’t insurmountable, but a list of present-tense GM moves a la Apocalypse World would have been greatly appreciated.
Overall though, I had a fantastic experience with Heart. While the horrific tone might not be for everyone, if you’ve ever made a beloved original character just to put them through the emotional wringer you understand the cathartic appeal inherent to this kind of storytelling, and odds are this is gonna be your jam. Roll up some weirdos, get invested in their feelings, and get ready to have a good time watching them have an extremely bad time — just make sure you have your X-card handy.