Spirit of the Century

For my last Indie game review for a while, I’m going to talk about “Spirit of the Century” from Evil Hat Productions. I’ve saved this one for last for a couple of reasons. For one, despite some creative and innovative mechanics and approaches, of the games I’ve reviewed, I’d say it’s the most traditional: PCs each have a character, they all cooperate in an adventure the GM comes up with and controls, and their characters have skills and stunts and gadgets that work much like any other RPG. The other reason I’ve saved this one for last, though, is that it is very close to what I’m shooting for already. It bills itself as a ‘pick up RPG’, designed to be great for one-off adventures, new players, and on the fly gaming. As a matter of fact, it does this job so well, and in a setting near and dear to my hear (20’s pulp action!), that I was sorely tempted to just make this game my default ‘starter RPG’ and be done with all of this design nonsense. Alas, the game design bug has me but good, and not only do I want to design a game of my own, I also feel like SoTC is just a touch more suited to a one-off game full of experienced roleplayers than it is to people new to the hobby.

Before I get into discussing how the game itself works, I want to point something out that I read in a review before purchasing the game. The rules of “Spirit of the Century” are chock a block full of great GMing advice. There’s a whole chapter on GM craft, but tidbits are scattered throughout the entire book. This GM advice is better and more comprehensive than 90% of ‘how to GM’ chapters I’ve ever read in various RPGs. It is geared towards running an exciting Pulp flavored game, but I think that most of the advice that is good for that is good for other games. Sure, you could be running a serious, dramatic game full of intrigue and politics, but advice on keeping things moving and compelling is just as useful in that milieu as it is in a rip-roaring aerial dogfight. As I said, all of the GMing advice is good, but there are a few key take-aways I want to highlight. The single best piece of advice is in regard to situations where the characters attempt an action with a roll. Simply put, make sure there are interesting consequences for success or failure. Obviously, “interesting” isn’t always good for the characters, but it is always good for the players. This simple guideline guides all sorts of decisions, like avoiding ‘make this roll or die’ situations. Dying because of a failed roll is not interesting, it’s cheap and sucks. Character death happens, but it should be more meaningful and interesting than just that. Second is the advice on information management. This applies to any way the GM gives information to the characters. Too little, and they don’t have any idea what to do. Too much and they get overloaded and stop paying attention to details. Beyond that advice, though, these rules recommend that you aren’t stingy with things like clues and important plot information. The whole point of such information, after all, is to drive the characters towards further action. Sitting around not acting is boring, so give them what they need to make decisions! What makes the game interesting is the decisions players make for their characters, not the tension of knowing or not knowing. I think that the tendency for GMs to want to ‘keep secrets’ comes from other entertainment media where that is a dramatic and interesting effect, like movies and mystery novels and such. The trouble with applying this particular technique to RPGs is that the characters don’t have a script to follow. In a movie or book, the main characters are guaranteed to eventually stumble across what is necessary to make the plot go forward or have an exciting reveal of previously secret information, but RPG characters have no such guarantee, unless you railroad them in the most horrible and boring way. So, sure, mysteries are fun and exciting and a great thing to introduce into RPGs, but rather than making the drama come from whether or not the characters find the clues, make the drama and tension come from putting the clues together. Give them as many clues as they need, then let them figure out what they mean. Finally, in the spirit of a pick up game with limited play time, SoTC advises that “dead air” time where nothing significant is happening is just a plain waste of game time, and gives a whole raft of ideas on combatting such boring down time. Things like keeping an in-game ‘clock’ element so that the adventure is a race against time and ensuring that action is a viable solution to the ills of the characters. And perhaps my favorite specific example of how to cure downtime is an old GM-favorite: send in the ninjas. Players totally off course? Have a squad of thugs break in and start shooting. At the end of the fight, one gets captured and interrogated, or runs off, leading the players to their secret base, or whatever. Action scenes pick up the pace, and if you plan them right, they can provide a way to gently nudge the characters back on the right track to taking further action. But you gotta be careful with this, because it might get obvious if you do it too much.

So, to reiterate, the GMing advice of SoTC is worth the price of admission alone. If you have any interest in running RPGs at all, and you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you pick it up and at minimum give the ‘tips and tricks’ chapter a read. Besides the general advice I mentioned above, it gives three different ways to come up with an adventure (a pre-plotted story, a cluster of decisions based on the characters’ main interests and traits, and a web of conflicting interests that will cause action and drama no matter how they turn out, or best of all, a combination of all three). For as good as the advice on crafting adventures is, I was actually pretty disappointed with the sample scenario included in the rulebook. To my mind, it seemed to not follow the advice given in the preceding chapter, giving a fairly straight and narrow plot line, not enough information to guarantee the players can act properly, and little focus on the characters as the stars of the show. That being said, it did have some pretty creative pulp elements and a decent initial situation.

Now, to actually discuss the rules, the core mechanic was one of my least favorite parts of the rules to start with, but it grew on me a bit. First off, it’s based on special “fudge dice”, which is irritating to me. The good news is that “fudge dice” are nothing but specially marked D6’s that can be reproduced using normal-person D6’s, which rather than being a pain in the ass to get, are in fact the most common dice on this island earth. Basically, 1-2 equals a -1, 3-4 equals a 0, and 5-6 equals a +1. So, skills are rated on a ‘ladder’ of -2 to +8, with a corresponding adjective (0 is ‘Mediocre’, +8 is Legendary and so forth). Difficulties are also set at some level on the ladder. To attempt a challenge, you roll 4 dice, add up the results, add that to your relevant skill, and compare against the difficulty.

So, for example, let’s say that Two-Fist Bob is trying punch out a disrespectful young man for an insult to his girl. Two-Fist Bob is a local amateur boxing champion, so he has a rating of “Great” (+4) in Fists. The GM decides that the drunk and lecherous fellow with a rude mouth isn’t going to take much to go down, but he’s a little tougher than a random schmoe, so he sets the difficulty at “Average” (+1). Two-Fist Bob’s player rolls his four dice getting a -1, -1, 0, +1. Add those together, and you get a net -1, which you add to his +4 from his skill, for a total of +3. He handily knocks the guy out with two “shifts” (each level over the required level for success is a ‘shift’, which comes into effect for some combat mechanics and the like).

Since characters are heroic paragons of their age, any skill they don’t specifically take is rated at ‘Mediocre’ (+0), and they take a ‘skill pyramid’: 1 skill at ‘Superb’ (+5), 2 skills at ‘Great’ (+4), 3 skills at ‘Good'(+3), 4 skills at ‘Fair’ (+2), and 5 skills at ‘Average’ (+1). No ‘stats’, just skills, but their use is intentionally pretty broad. The way the skills shake out, it is at once hard to be super specialized or an extremely broad ‘jack of all trades’, since every character will have the same number of skills at each level of competence. It’s fairly balanced, and allows characters to still have a strong main area of interest while being useful in a broad range of situations, but like I said, it’s hard to make a hyper-specialized character or one specialized in not being specialized.

The character creation system given is actually a pretty cool process. After coming up with your skills and a broad concept, you go through the phases of your life – initial background, the Great War, and then 3 pulp novels about your character’s adventures. In each novel, you choose a ‘co-star’ from among the other Player Characters, and you thus come up with a background of helping each other out and interacting. There are also mechanics associated with this background, but more on that in a minute. As with the challenges in “Agon” and the best interests in “In a Wicked Age”, I’m a big fan of having a mechanical process at character creation that binds the characters together and gives them a reason to interact in play. It beats the hell out of “An old man speaks to each of you in a tavern. . .”

Now, that mechanical feature I talked about is perhaps the coolest and most striking trait of the SoTC rules, and that is “Aspects”. Aspects interact with another mechanic called ‘fate points’ that on their surface look pretty familiar: a bonus point to get you a reroll or add to an existing roll when you really need to succeed. But those are just the boring uses of fate points. Where their real coolness comes in, your character can spend a fate point to do things like declare that their happens to be a convenient fire escape in this alley, so he can follow the high-jumping villain. Or for your academic to announce that he’s come across this tribe in his studies and that the proper way to show respect to them is a feat of strength. In other words, players can inject a bit of narrative control. The GM can still overrule such things, but a good GM will go with it if it’s cool and let the player spend his fate point. So what about these aspects I mentioned, and what makes them so cool?

So, Aspects are the way that players can use fate points or gain them back. At first glance they look a lot like perks and flaws, but they’re actually much broader than that. They can be a tagline, a significant person, a prop, or just traits about the character. Anything from “Sworn enemy of the Secret Brotherhood of the Flame” to “Unspoken Love (Sally)” to “Ancient Family Sword” to “Fiery Latin Temper”. Players have total leeway in picking their aspects, but the rules give some great advice on what’s good to pick and what’s not. More on that in a sec. Mechanically, if a player wants to use his aspect to help him out, he can spend a fate point, and then either reroll the relevant dice, or add 2 to his result. So, in a fight with minions of the Secret Brotherhood of Fire, a ‘sworn enemy’ might “invoke” his aspect, spend a fate point, and rain down righteous fury. On the other hand, the GM can “compel” an aspect, in which case he makes something happen to the character with the aspect, but pays him a fate point for the trouble. So, the “Sworn Enemy” notices a ring on the hand of an important politician that denotes his membership in the brotherhood, and the GM compels him to act against the politician and pays him a fate point. A player can choose to ‘buy out’ of such a compel. An interesting twist is that a player can even ask a GM for a compel – in other words, he says he’ll act in a complicating/negative way in accordance with one of his aspects, but he wants a fate point for it.

The rules also cover temporary aspects (like “dizzy” for someone who just got hit in the head in a fight), environmental aspects for scenes (like “shadowy”) and so forth, and there are some neat mechanical ways they come into play, but it’s as a character trait that I find them most interesting and most useful. This is one of the best ways I think I’ve ever seen to handle ‘perks’ and ‘flaws’, as well as just general character information. One issue with traditional ‘flaws’ that give character points for a negative effect is that many are on the player to incorporate, or at most the GM can be like “well, you did take unfriendly, so I’m not going to let you make a charm roll here”. And when those flaw points are used to buy extremely useful in-game abilities (like a one-eyed, one-legged, stinky, drunk, midget combat monster) munchkinism is born. The beauty of the aspects system is that it gives in-play uses to aspects to both player and GM, and it mechanically rewards ‘double sided’ aspects the most. With aspects that are occasionally useful and occasionally trouble, you can both spend and regain fate points using them. If you have nothing but out and out useful ones like “Lucky” or “Great Shot”, you’ll never get fate points back.

Aspects are also a great way for players to let the GM know what kind of things they want their character to do, what kind of situations they want to be in. If a character has aspects like “In the Nick of Time”, “Dramatic Entrance”, and “Not this time, Dr. Zambago!” he probably doesn’t want to research ancient scrolls in the library or mingle in high society balls. Even better, with those aspects, the GM has both story and mechanical back up for making those things happen! And when characters have aspects that involve each other, it creates an even tighter bond between the play group. The GMing chapter recommends one method of adventure creation where you look at your PC’s aspects and use those to come up with “decision points” involving those aspects, and then just see where the players go from one decision to the next, or if you are doing a more scripted adventure, to keep aspects in mind as you write what sort of conflict and drama will be going on. In short, aspects permeate every facet of this game, and I think are a delightfully subtle yet powerful tool for integrating story and mechanics, and as with the rest of the rules, the advice on their use is top-knotch character creation and play advice, even when applied to a system without ‘aspects’.

After gushing so much about this system, I feel like I should mention some of the reasons I did not choose it as my go-to starter RPG game, in addition to those I mentioned in the introduction. First off, as much as I do love early 20th century pulp adventure with Action! Science! and Action Science! it is not everybody’s cup of tea. I also find the core mechanic to be just a bit awkward. After fully reading through the rules, it makes a lot more sense than when first presented, and I feel that it would play fairly smoothly, but I also get the impression that adequately explaining it to new players would be a bit of a challenge. Likewise, the way things like sidekicks, gadgets, and other ‘stunts’ are handled is flexible, but not my favorite ever. With the fairly limited ‘skill’ options, stunts are the main directly mechanical way you distinguish your character from others, and for all that they felt somewhat limited. Perhaps most importantly, however, the game strongly discourages character advancement, and with good reason for what it is, but still. The philosophy put forth is that a ‘pick up game’ is one that you play when and how you can, without necessarily having the same players or characters present every time. To provide in-game rewards based on amount of play time effectively punishes players for having other things going on in their life. So, that makes sense. On the other hand, though, I feel like character advancement is the most rewarding and ‘hooking’ part of roleplaying, and not allowing new players to enjoy it would rob them of an experience that would likely help cement their enjoyment of the hobby. So, as with all the other games I’ve reviewed here, I will shelve this as a game I’d love to play sometime, and in the meanwhile, ruthlessly pillage it for good design ideas to include in my own project.

Starting next time, I’ll finally begin the development process of my actual game! It’s exciting that it’s starting to take shape, bits and pieces at a time, and I plan to make the process as open as possible via this blog, both as a record for myself, and as an opportunity for input from readers to shape the game as it develops. Once again, any comments are a welcome source of discussion.

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