Brad J. Murray (halfjack) wrote in roleplayers,
Brad J. Murray

Spirit of the Century review

This is a re-post of a review I have posted at Enjoy it here first.

Summary: This the most fun I have ever had with a role-playing game.

In Spirit of the Century you play a pulp action hero in the early 1920s using science and mystery to outdo arch villains intent on ruling the world with the burgeoning knowledge of the brave new world. Flight is new and adventurous. Electricity is still a marvel. Much of the world has yet to be explored. Magic is just a science we don't yet fully understand. Think Indiana Jones, the Shadow, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sky Captain, The Rocketeer, and a thousand others. It's gritty supers before the second world war.

I wasn't much impressed with the genre so I put off playing this for a while, but more and more reviews from people I trust came in and came in positive so we finally gave it a go. And I was blown away. This is a game about role-playing — the rules govern the process of role-playing and it works. It's fast paced, intuitive, and generates fun from snacks with very high efficiency.

The game is designed as a pick-up game. I thought this was pretty unlikely considering there are hundreds of pages of rules, but I was wrong. The rules fade away while you're playing and the games are naturally paced to about one session per story. The story structure of pulp adventurers lends itself both to quick resolution and episodic rather than campaign play and the structure can be formalised such that generating new scenarios is a matter of a small page of notes at most, so in fact the game delivers exactly as advertised.

First Evening: Character Creation
We always take a full evening for character creation in any game, mostly because my whole group likes character creation generally. This system takes character creation into territory that's fun in itself. If you plan to GM the game, make up a character with the rest of the players anyway. You won't be disappointed.

Character creation takes place in five phases. In Phase one, the player comes up with the character concept and describes his childhood to age 14 in a sentence or two. From this he extracts two Aspects. Aspects are critical descriptors of the character — they can be positive or negative or bother, and any of these will benefit the player in actual play. Trust me. It works. Unlike, say, GURPS disadvantages which are a lever to power game effects by picking supposedly deleterious attributes that you then attempt to minimise in game, players of Spirit of the Century benefit directly and constantly from both good and bad Aspects. Aspects are free-form but you can choose from a list provided if you like. In phase one, you might pick Aspects like Spoiled Brat, Steals Lunch, Four-eyes, or Red Headed Stepchild. For example.

In Phase Two the Great War breaks out. Each player describes in a few sentences what he did in the war and how he met his mentor. It is at this time that the character discovers he is profoundly exceptional — maybe piloting experimental monoplane fighters for Britain at the age of 15 in sorties over Germany. Again, the player invents two Aspects that align with his experience of the Great War.

In Phase Three the player outlines the first novel about his character. Build a title and a back cover blubr describing the amazing advanture but skip the details. Jack Speed in Up, Up, and Away! Dirk Blade versus the Machu Pichu Madman! Doc Windsor and the Sands of Time! You get the idea. Again, pick two Aspects that are implied by the novel. This is the point at which you might invent a nemesis for yourself (and thereby a level for the GM to pull) as an Aspect.

In Phase Four the novel descriptions are shuffled and randomly handed around. If you get your own, switch with the guy on the right. Now add yourself as a guest star to the blurb. One sentence will do! Pick two more Aspects, this time associated with the other character's novel.

Phase Five repeats phase four with another, different player's novel.

Next you pick some skills and arrange them in a pyramid. You get one Superb skill, two Great skills, three Good skills, four Fair skills, and five Average skills. Pick some stunts (special effects like a prototype airplane or trick shootin') and you're done.

Now look what you get out of this because it's amazing. It solves most of the classic problems with character creation. First, it's perfectly balanced — picking a hierarchy of skills means everyone gets the same quality and quantity of skills but chooses their priorities thereby defining their solutions set to problems. Second, everyone starts out with a history of interaction with each other — no more "you meet in a tavern and decide to adventure together" openers. Third, everyone starts powerful and famous — your characters live for adventure and not for eking out a living. You are trouble magnets and you know your way around trouble. Fourth (I may stop numbering as it's getting silly), each character is loaded with hooks for a GM to play with. Every Aspect is a tool and every novel has a potential sequel.

Generating characters was the most fun I've ever had in a role-playing game. Until we actually played.

Second Evening: The Diabolical Doctor Nein
Jack Speed (intrepid test pilot), Dana D'Niall (woman of mystery and amateur necromancer), and Dirk Blade (knife wileding man of action) are enjoying schnapps and witty conversation with the King of Austria in the piano bar of his private zeppelin as they traverse the Atlantic from Vienna to New York.

Those are basically my notes for the game. There's some more hooks like that so I have a "get in trouble" act, a "investigate" act, a "chase" act, and a climax. You don't need to follow that structure and there are several different recommendations for approach game prep included in the book (how many games help you at all with that, let alone give you several viable mthods?) But that's the kicker — piano bar, zeppelin, king of Austria.

Now in the FATE system, everything is resolved with four six sided dice. You never need more. You never use less. You never use a different shape. Always four. You can get special dice (FATE or FUDGE dice) but regular six siders will do — the special dice have two faces marked with a +, two marked with a -, and two blank. I leave mapping this onto a traditional d6 to the reader. You roll your four dice, add them up (++-b would be +1, ---+ would be -2, you get the idea) and add the result to your skill (Average is +1, increment by one up to +5 for Superb). Results above superb are Fantastic, Epic, and Legendary.

Anyway, in the piano bar I call for an Alertness roll. Jack rolls Average — "You feel a slight shudder ripple through the zeppelin". Dana rolls Good — "A shudder ripples through the zeppelin and you smell smoke. Dirk rolls Legendary — "A shudder ripples through the zeppelin as though a small explosive device has gone off. It's quickly followed by the smell of a thermite fire mixed with aluminized canvas — probably the hull burning. You suspect the thermite is of Dutch manufacture."

Dirk runs for the upper hull to check the fire and see if there are more bombs. Dana grabs her drink without spilling) and follows. Jack heads for the cockpit because he has a plan — you put out a fire with water and this zeppelin is flying over the Atlantic Ocean, a notorious source of water. There has to be a solution in there somewhere.

And so on all night long.

Now if you don't like your roll, you can do something about it. You start every session with 10 fate points (one for each Aspect). You can spend a fate point to get +1 on your roll but that's boring and it never happened once in our game. I'd strike it from the rules as superfluous. You can call on a relevant Aspect, narrate how it helps you, and either re-roll or get +2 to your existing roll (Jack sits down at the zeppelin controls and throws it into a steep dive. he rolls ---b knocking his Superb down to Fair. Not good enough, so he calls on "If It Flies I can Fly It" and re-rolls for ++-b. Fantastic ought to do the trick.)

You can tag another character's (player or NPC) Aspect for help. You might grab the thugs' Overconfident to reroll your Stealth or your friend's In the Nick of Time to have him show up just when you need him. You can tag Aspects that are on the scene if you can make them work for you. "On Fire" might be used to help you maneuver enemies into trouble.

And finally the GM can compel your Aspects. This is where you get points back. Dana D'Niall is disguised as a Neinman to inflitrate Doctor Nein's hideout and she approach the leader of his henchmen. The GM brings out a poker chip and points out that the disguise might not be so helpful considering "Oh Yeah, I Once Dated Him". The player can take the fate point and add it to his pile and thereby accept the consequence (Cover is blown! Adventure ensues!) or he can pay a fate point and avoid it. In this way a kind of economy of fate points is established and they move pretty fluidly around provided the GM keeps a handy list of the Aspects and compels often to keep people in trouble.

This is a real game — it's got mechanics for doing things. The mechanics are simple and are directly and constantly applied to the progress of the story. Despite that, they are nearly invisible and never seem to get in front of the characters. If anything they enhance it, pushing everyone in unexpected but always adventurous directions. This mechanism is an engine that constant cranks out fun. Everyone is invested in their characters and the other players' characters by virtue of the generation system and are never put in a position where something out of their control creates a circumstance that they hate — these characters are borne to trouble and have all the tools they need to get out of it. The system encourages a high level of creativity from both the players and the GM without a commensurate preparation load, which I would not have guessed was possible until I saw it run. There are no binders full of maps, NPC stats, and boxed text to read. There are no multi-page character backstories. And yet everything is very fully fleshed out and engaging — moreso than most games I've put hundreds of times more effort into.

This is the the ultimate in effort:fun economy. It's hard to imagine how you'd make it better.

Spirit of the Century can be had from Evil Hat directly in PDF ($15), softcover ($30), or hardcover ($50). I bought it in hardcover from Lulu and the quality is great. Took six weeks to get though.

Oh, how did it end? The trio have tracked Doctor Nein to his city-sized airship and deftly crash-landed into the hanger just as the Doctor has arrived in his own experimental aircraft. Jack checks his plane and notes he has managed to land within inches of the avgas refuleling line — in fact the hose is practically aligned with his gas cap — knocking away an enemy plane about to refuel. Dana has used her mysterious gem to summon the spirits of all those who Doctor Nein has wronged and is advancing on the doctor surrounded by angry ghosts. As she begins her speech announcing the end of Doctor Nein's career as a criminal madman, Dirk pushes her aside and cleaves the evil Doctor with a Legendary blow (his Weapons, a good roll, and for good measure +2 from his Aspect "Exposition? Like hell. It's time to FIGHT."), and the Doctor falls, one eye ruined, his henchment cowed into submission.

Jack flies the airship to London where they turn Doctor Nein over to Sotland Yard.

Now check it out: Doctor Nein gets to come back into play WITH AN EYEPATCH. That's solid sequel material in my books.

Some observations about the game came up from our player post mortem that might be interesting.

- The age old problem of the party splitting up does not exist in this game. Not because the party doesn't split up — they do and more than any other game I've played — but because it's not a chore to handle as a GM. It works becuatifully. I used a simple turn structure going around the table with the current dilemm ("Jack, you're struggling with the zeppelin controls and nearing the water. What are you going to do?") that the character needs to handle. Every time I stop on someone they are narrating a paragraph or less in response and usually accompanied by a roll (skills are constantly in use — no part of the character sheet is unused). This goes fast even when the players are doing independent things.

- Humour fits. Everyone got completely into the over-the-top camp of the game with a level of immersion that precluded even Monty Python jokes. There was more in character talk than I've seen in most other games and I think part of that is because the fun level is ramped up so high. There's not a lot of potentially embarassing angsty scenes in this genre. Typical was:

GM: Jack you're driving Dana at high speed across town. Dirk you spot Jack's car hurtling towards you and...past. They didn't see you!
Dirk: I run after the car and try to catch up! Athletics.
(roll, augment with Aspect "Faster! Faster!" to get an Epic result)
Dirk: Epic, wow! I bolt after Jack's Model T and leap on the back, the wind blowing my long black hair around crazily, my knife in my teeth!
Jack: (looks behind him) Dirk, quit playing around and get in the car.

- When the GM uses your Aspects against you to get you into trouble it's actually MORE fun. This might be because you have the power to avoid it. If you think you can do something with the wrinkle, though, you get paid for your effort. The reward mechanism really works. I had players bringing up negative Aspects rather than waiting for me.

- Rotating GMs will work really well. Missing players are not a problem. Because everyone has a character ready and all characters are at the same power level (and tehre's no power progression per se), any time you want to play you pick a GM and everyone else who happens to be present brings out their character. And go. No one gets left behind because they weren't there. Anyone who has a story idea can step into the GM seat and try it out.

- It generates fanfic. I have one player already writing side stories about someone elses character. Now it's not unheard of for me to see people write fanfic about their own character, but I've never seen players so keen that they are writing material about other players' characters. That's really cool.

Evil Hat Productions
Our session notes and characters

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