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Review of Spirit of the Century RPG
Spirit of the Century (hereinafter “SotC”) provides action packed pulp adventure unlike any of its predecessors. This game is meant to be a pickup game – something you play with little preparation and, perhaps, when the other weekly game failed to materialize. To that end it’s a fast paced action packed romp incorporating the very best the pulp genre has to offer. From stopping time traveling zeppelins of doom to exploring ancient ruins, SotC enables a group to tell any pulp story they like.

Character creation is fast and extremely flavorful, the whole product oozes pulp atmosphere, but it’s the mechanics where SotC really shines. The game fully embraces player narrative, making character concepts like the plucky reporter and witty young scholar as mechanically useful as a gun toting mobster – something rarely seen in other games that use abilities like Academics and Investigaiton just to deliver information from the Gamemaster (GM) to the Player Characters (PCs). For those of you uncomfortable with such mechanics, don’t fear. Fate points are spent to use them and the GM is always in the driver’s seat here.

The only potential problem here is that the game needs a competent GM and creative players to really shine.

The Physical Thing

While a hardcover version is available, this is the print softcover I’m reviewing (I expect they’re the same). This 420 page black and white softcover showcases above average production values. The size of the book is smaller than a standard RPG, but larger than a novel – about the size of an oversized novel. Small pieces of art centered around signature characters from the product are very evocative and well done, adding to the already substantial pulp feel of SotC. These pieces do tend to be small, however.

It was a comfortable fit in my hands and, thanks to the excellent formatting it was easy to read. I had an easier time reading this product than any other in recent memory. The writing is just fantastic. Not only does it lack the grammar errors commonly found in the quickly produced RPG books we encounter today, but the tone of the writing was friendly while still sounding like an RPG book (and not someone just talking at me, which bothers me with some RPGs). Frequent and subtle use of quotes from movies (Princess Bride, Star Wars, etc.) adds a geeky sort of amusement without being obvious about it.

The Ideas

This is a pulp game, that is a game set in the early 1920s that draws inspiration from the pulp serials of the day (stuff like The Shadow and Doc Savage). Pulp RPGs go beyond that though, and draw upon similar works like the movies Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to name a few. The player characters take on the role of the heroes of the day, the best the world has to offer against the evil likes of Doctor Methuselah and other vile fiends. Gun fights on top of zeppelins, quests through the undead infested Aztec temples of South America, solving the mystery of the pyramids, and helping bootleggers supply that sweet, sweet alcohol to the people of New York City are just a few examples of the sorts of things characters might do in a Spirit of the Century game.

SotC is meant to be a pickup game – that is a game that is run as either a one session game or a game spread over just a few sessions. While it absolutely has support for longer term play, the game is meant to be fast and fun for people who need an RPG to fill in a single session with. That said, I think the way Aspects work in the game make it an extremely good choice for longer term campaigns – though those campaigns are best served through an episodic structure. There is no experience point system here and, in fact, character advancement isn’t automatically assumed. There are rules for it, for those folk who want character advancement in a long term game, but starting characters are very capable and easily occupy a specific role.

Under the Cover

Background 5 pages.

This introduction briefly describes what pulps are, the general assumptions of the world of the 1920s (racism, sexism, should they be in your game, the role of science, etc.) and provides other background material. The PCs in SotC work for a group called the Century Club and are dispatched to help resolve problems all over the world.

The Basics 8 pages.

SotC uses FATE (3.0) which is based on FUDGE. I will assume you don’t know what I’m talking about, so here’s how it all works:

This game uses FUDGE dice, they’re d6s where two sides are “-“, two sides are “+” and two sides are blank. Four of them are rolled, resulting in a value between -4 and +4. If you don’t have FUDGE dice, normal d6s can be easily used. Additionally, the game uses a descriptive chart going from -2 (Terrible) to +8 (Legendary). These values are used to describe Skills, Difficulty, and just about everything else system related.

Example: Penny wants to hit the bullseye on a dart board. The GM decides this is a Superb (+5) Difficulty that will be based off the Athletics skill. Penny has Athletics at Good (+2) so she will need at least a +2 on her roll in order to succeed. The player rolls “-“, “+”, “+”, “+,” not quite enough unless she spends a Fate Point!

In addition to Skills and Difficulty a few other key mechanics are introduced here. Aspect is very important. Every character begins with 10 Aspects chosen during character creation. These are brief statements, names of objects, friends, or phrases that involve the character. See Penny Ante, an example character I built, below for some examples. The book recommends that players choose descriptive, flavorful Aspects. The reason for this is that a GM might use a character’s Aspect against them (called compelling). This is a good thing, because when it occurs the player receives a free Fate Point.

Example: John (a player) wants to take some gambling-related Aspects for Penny. He initially considers “Gambler” but through some GM coaxing chooses “Reigning Poker World Champion” instead. The latter may be a better choice for several reasons. It’s more flavorful for one, which adds fun to the game. More importantly, it’s easier for the GM to compel in an interesting way. Now the GM might seed situations where an NPC calls the character’s reputation into question, compelling her into all manner of seedy poker games. Finally, the way this Aspect is phrased it could also be used in social situations and anywhere the character’s reputation is important. On the downside, “Gambler” could apply to playing the odds in life generally and not just in games of chance. The GM would still have plenty of options with it, and it would be a fine choice, but John’s new choice adds more flavor and history to his character.

Stunts are special abilities that expand upon Skills. They could represent a secret base, powerful gadget, shooting trick, or a variety of other things.

Fate Points are similar to Drama/Hero/Inspiration points found in other games. First, they can be spent to add 1 to any die roll. Second, they can be used to invoke an Aspect. This either adds two to the roll or it allows a complete reroll. The Aspect has to be relevant to the roll, however, so Penny could invoke Reigning Poker World Champion in poker game (Gambling roll) but not in a gunfight. Third, they can Tag an Aspect. This means they invoke an Aspect that belongs to another character, a scene, or possibly even an object. An alley at night might have Shadows Everywhere, for example, which could be Tagged for a +2 to a roll or a reroll. Fourth, Fate Points may be used to activate certain Stunts that require it. Finally, Fate Points may be used to make a Declaration. This is changing a scene in some way by adding a new element, such as a ladder where one wasn’t described or making the security guard an old childhood friend.

Fate Points partially refresh every session, and players may earn more through roleplay and having character Aspects compelled. 10 is a common number to start with.

Character Creation 18 pages.

After choosing a name and brief background a character goes through five steps. First, the player describes the characters origin and upbringing. Second, the player describes their introduction to the Centurion Club and what they did during WWI (all characters are born on the first day of the century). Third, the player creates the name of a pulp novel the character starred in. Fourth and Fifth, the player has the character guest star in another player’s pulp novel. In every step two additional Aspects are selected.

Know that there is an alternative character creation method where a character is built on the fly. The character sheet is blank and the player writes things down as the come up in play. So, if Penny was made on the fly when it came time to make a Gambling roll the player might think “Yeah, Penny is an incredibly good gambler” and assign Gambling to the Superb slot (see below).

Here’s an example:

STEP 1: Name: Penny Ante Background: A street urchin who grew up in New York City, her parents abandoned her at an early age. Aspects: “I don’t need any help!” and Grew Up On The Streets.

STEP 2: WW1: While other characters were fighting in the trenches, Penny was clawing her way through the underworld one poker game at a time. At one such poker game Penny met a Centurion and used her savings to buy into the Centurion Club and elevate herself to a whole new forum of gambling. Her sponsor, Black Rook, showed Penny the ins and outs of high society gaming. Aspects: No Stranger To Money, “Time to shuffle the deck and take a chance!”

STEP 3: Penny’s Novel: Penny Ante in The Greatest Game Ever Played. Follow Penny Ante and her friends on their quest to win the largest pot in history! Aspects: Reigning Poker World Champion, An Old Flame At Every Table

STEP 4: Another character’s novel: Dr. Eternity vs. The Diablo Engine Guest Starring Penny Ante! Aspects: Striking Green Eyes, An Ace Up Her Sleeve

STEP 5: Another character’s novel: Jungle Jane and The Jaguar People of Venus Aspects: Biting Tongue, Keeper of the Jaguar-People Secret of Governance

After all of this the player selects 1 Superb Skill, 2 Great, 3 Good, 4 Fair, and 5 Average. 5 Stunts are then selected and that’s it, you’re done!

Here’s Penny Ante’s final character sheet:

Superb (+4): Gambling

Great (+3): Resources, Deceit

Good (+2): Athletics, Contacting, Rapport

Fair (+1): Alertness, Guns, Endurance, Resolve

Average (+0): Academics, Burglary, Investigation, Sleight of Hand, Stealth

Stunts: Know When To Fold ‘Em (GM rolsl NPC Gambling ahead of time, reveals if its higher or lower than PC’s Gambling Skill), Gambling Woman (earns double for being compelled into a gambling situation), The Devil’s Own Luck (can use Gambling Skill on games of pure chance, such as dice), Grease The Wheels (use Resources instead of Leadership where bribes will work), and Con Woman (can use Deceit instead of Empathy to get a read on a mark).

Aspects 20 pages.

A lot of this chapter discusses what I mentioned in The Basics, above. In addition to mechanical bonuses, an Aspect may be invoked to add to a scene. For example, Penny could invoke An Old Flame At Every Table to actually have an old love interest be at a gambling table she joins. Tagging lets a player use the Aspects of another character, scene, or something different to the player character’s benefit so long as they are interacting with it in a consistent way.

Player’s don’t normally know what Aspects a character or scene has. If they want to Tag something they set aside a Fate Point and guess what Aspects exist. As long as the guess is close, then the GM accepts the Fate Point and allows the Tag. For example: Penny is trying to pull a con on a person in a bar. She tags Drunk on her mark and the GM agrees it’s an Aspect the person possesses. She later tries to Tag Home of the Centipede Clan on the bar while searching for information, since the player has become suspicious that this might be where the gang hides out. The player knows that if this is not the case then this has to be the Home of the Wasp Clan, as the only two major bars in this town are each said to be controlled by one of the Clans. This guess is wrong, as this is actually the Wasp Bar. However, the GM charges the player a Fate Point anyway. Why? Because the answer revealed hidden information about the bar, despite the original attempt to Tag failing. Where the player derives a benefit anyway, such as secret information, they still must spend a Fate Point.

A GM may also compel an Aspect, which is to use it against the player. The benefit is that the player receives one (or more) Fate Points in return for this. Having a villain group or common weakness can be quite an advantage over time, as it’s likely to result in a lot of Fate Points heading that player’s way.

How To Do Things 29 pages.

Beating a difficulty in SotC can result in Spin for every point the difficulty is defeated by. So, for example, a character with a total value of 5 going against a difficulty of 1 generates 4 Spin. This can be used to speed up tasks, increase the degree of success (a ‘just barely’ becomes a complete, fantastic success), and other similar benefits.

Actions are either Simple Actions (one roll against a set difficulty), Contests (two characters roll against one another), or Conflicts (a series of actions, such as a combat). In combat characters get one attack action and a supplemental action every round (usually movement) if they wish, though it incurs a small penalty on the attack roll. Conflicts are not just limited to physical combat, but include social combat (convincing/intimidating) and mental combat (academic debates) as well. Different Skills are used depending on what’s going on, and it would not be unusual for a player to lobby for using a different school by describing their character’s action in a reasonable manner. Ultimately this means that combat is simple, intuitive, and easy to run.

Combat works differently depending upon how Minions or Sidekicks are being used. Sidekicks are a little more competent than minions, there’s just the one, and typically are used by the good guys. Minions often come in groups of 6 or more, are a little less competent, and are typically used by bad guys. Without either of these assistants it works like this: Characters have five Stress boxes. A successful hit does one box of damage, which box it fills depends on the Spin of the attack. A spin 5 attack fills the fifth box. Damage that fills an already filled box fills in the next one instead, so a Spin 2 hit followed by another Spin 2 hit fills in boxes 2 and 3. These boxes clear at the end of a scene and represent Stress on the character.

Whenever damage is dealt (this could be actual wounds, like knife slashes, or losing a debate or anything) that pushes damage beyond the 5th box a character suffers a Complication. Characters may suffer three Complications. The first time it’s Mild, then Moderate, and then Severe. After that the character is Taken Out, which means they’re removed for the time being. At any time a character may Concede the conflict and no longer have to suffer damage – this could be surrendering in battle, conceding a point in a debate, fleeing a social scene, or something similar. Complications fade over time and are appropriate to the circumstances. Mild could be running out of ammunition, a nasty bruise, or hurt feelings. Severe might be broken ribs or extreme depression (perhaps from having a major academic work destroyed). In this way combat and damage are somewhat abstract, but the results of a conflict are always interesting.

Minions and Sidekicks can function independently as easily defeatable adversaries or they can be attached to major bad guys and player characters. When they’re attached they grant extra Stress (damage) boxes. For minions these Stress boxes represent actual minions, so as the group’s “health” goes down minions are dropping like flies. For a sidekick it’s similar, but often the lost “health” will represent the sidekick being kidnapped or otherwise removed from the action (which is a good reason to have the sidekick as an Aspect too).

There’s a little more to it than this, including a host of flavorful maneuvers that expand what can be done in combat in a mechanically useful way, but this is the core of the conflict resolution mechanic. Savvy players will be Tagging Aspects frequently during a conflict in order to get an edge.

Skills 33 pages.

The Skill list for SotC is very pulp focused and includes: Academics, Alertness, Art, Athletics, Burglary, Contacting, Deceit, Drive, Empathy, Endurance, Engineering, Fists, Gambling, Guns, Intimidation, Investigations, Leadership, Might, Mysteries, Pilot, Rapport, Resolve, Resources, Science, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Survival, and Weapons. Since I’ve described how the system works, here are the highlights of Skills in SotC.

Some Skills, such as Academics, will allow a player to make declarations which change the game in small ways. For example: Upon encountering a group of angry tribesman Dr. Eternity says “Ah, these are the people of the Yondallak tribe famous for respecting shows of courage.” This would allow Dr. Eternity, if the GM thinks it’s appropriate, to add the Respects Courage Aspect to the tribe. When the group diplomat tries to win their trust moments later, the diplomat may Tag Respects Courage by approaching the warriors unarmed and confident. A roll is often made to effectuate this, but in some cases the GM might not even bother. For something like Science this makes technobabble interesting and mechanically useful – this is a game that rewards players for flavorful description.

All Skills are moderately broad, and the book gives a lot of solid and flavorful examples of how to use them. From an Art check to create a painting so amazing it inspires Hope in all those who view it to a Burglary check for Casing a job which results in Aspects that can be assigned on the fly, every character will have a variety of interesting things to do in this game no matter how they’re built.

Stunts 92 pages.

These are special abilities tied to particular skills, either expanding the use of that skill or offering a super human capability with it. Taking Might up to truly beyond-human strength, buying Minions for Leadership, becoming a master Linguist with Academics, or even having a disposable Gadget for every situation are all options available to the player. The abilities all make sense, they’re interesting, and they provide substantial mechanical benefits. This results in more focused characters, and in many cases a few Stunts define a character’s capabilities more than anything else.

While there are a lot of Stunts, they have an edge on special powers in other RPGs in that they’re simple and easy to work with. A single sentence for each scrawled on the character sheet is all a player needs to remember what the Stunt does.

Gadgets and Gizmos 15 pages.

This chapter is excellent because it discusses common items of the day, provides a timeline for major inventions until WW2, and discusses what the economy is like in 1920. This makes it simple for a GM to add a lot of flavor to the game while also making it easier to adjudicate Gadgets (Gadgets that embrace near future technologies require the Weird Science Stunt, further out technology requires Mad Science as well). Weapons, explosives, vehicles, and a Resources chart that explains how characters buy things are all presented. Especially helpful is a description of how to modify devices, sample Gadgets, and advice on using Gadgets to solve problems without worrying about the exact nature of the Gadget.

Running The Game 54 pages.

A lot of really good GM advice is presented here, the best being that a GM should imagine success and failure before calling for a roll and make sure that either possibility is interesting and fun. In addition to other great advice this chapter discusses how to use every Skill in depth, specifically discussing a variety of topics from Poison to Chase scenes (very well done) to making use of a 6th sense ability through Mysteries.

Tips and Tricks 60 pages.

This chapter discusses how to structure a pulp adventure, covering topics such as amazing escapes, how villains use henchmen, and common events in pulp games. The chapter shows a GM how to run an excellent SotC session step by step, offering several different ways of approaching adventure creation. As with the rest of the product, I find this advice to be extremely good – better than much of the advice found in other RPGs on the market and much more focused on the pulp aspect of the game.

The Nether Agenda: A Sample Scenario 14 pages.

It’s short but well written, not only does this adventure show a GM how to construct their own adventures but it’s also fun to read and very playable.

Secrets of the Century 23 pages.

In addition to spilling the setting secrets this chapter discusses using SotC for campaigns set outside the 1920s, basically discussing all eras of play. I agree with the book that this game can easily be removed from the 1920s with few to no changes, and have been strongly considering using SotC to run a lot of games I have in mind that involve heroic people with fantastic abilities not on par with super heroes. The chapter also discusses major events over the last 20 years, including plot hooks for involving those events in a SotC game. This is yet another way in which this book strives, and succeeds, at being very GM friendly. A full timeline from 1900 to 1924 provides major historical events in order to get a GM up to speed on the era.

Quick Pick Stunt Packages 20 pages.

These packages are meant for quick character creation so that a player doesn’t need to sit and read through the myriad possibilities. They’re well done and cover every pulp concept I can think of. SotC is all about quick character creation, low prep time, and fast play.

Bibliography, Sample NPCS, Index 20 pages.

The Bibliography is excellent, providing a wonderful selection of resources. The Sample NPCs are helpful, providing ready to use supporting characters for any game (they are also very flavorful). The index is very well done, spanning 10 pages and allowing the reader to instantly find anything they want.

My Take

For me, this is the best RPG of its type on the market. I have not been so excited about an RPG in some time. SotC is both a narrowly focused RPG and an excellent toolkit for a variety of other games. My group is already discussing a Star Trek game based on it, and the thought of using the Science skill to spew interesting and scene relevant technobabble fills me with joy. I feel like the GM advice showcases the very best advice the RPG community has learned over the last five years, making this a product that embraces fun at every stage while casting off some of the older notions about how roleplaying games are meant to be structured. I have never read an RPG where the advice on running the game was as consistently good as this advice is.

This is not a lavishly illustrated full color product. The somewhat abstract way in which the game approaches conflict will not agree with many roleplayers. However, for folk who are interested in a low prep fast resolution game that focuses attention on the most interesting possibilities in a given scene, you will love this game. I just can’t recommend Spirit of the Century highly enough!

 
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