RPGPundit Review: Spirit of the Century
Spirit of the Century is a 428 page PDF by Rob Donoghue and Evil Hat Productions, which is described as a "pulp pick up Roleplaying game". Right there, it started to lose me. I mean, lets think about this for a second: by "pick-up" they mean, and I quote, "a game that follows a specific mode of play that is well suited to running games with little planning or preparation".
Well, yea, except that the first part of what makes that statement pretty absurd is the fact that we're talking about a 428 page book. I suppose that having to read a 428 page book doesn't count as "planning and preparation"??
It would also have really, really helped if this PDF didn't constantly crash while I was trying to read said 428 pages.
So these two things already started me off a little biased against this product, a product I otherwise wanted to like, because I do like Pulp as a genre, quite a lot in fact, and think it makes for great gaming.
Unfortunately, Spirit of the Century is not so much a generic Pulp game (which, you'd have thought with 428 freaking pages, thats what it'd be), as it is a very specific pulp setting. Very specific. And while the specific bits themselves are not unappealing to me as such, I think the overall guiding philosophy about the design of this game and setting are off.
Basically, I think the author has misunderstood two things: what the pulp genre was about, and what most players would want from a pulp setting.
First, a little summary of the setting: the PCs are supposed to be members of the Century Club, an elite and very secret club of people who were all born on the 1st of January 1901. Apparently, the club has been in existance since time immemorial, and is a secret group for people who were born on the 1st day of each century, who are all adventurers, and meant to somehow "guide" the world in the course of "their" century (hence the name of the game).
All fine and good, but we are starting to see some of the artsy-fartsy slip in, aren't we? I mean, you can see where this is going, and it does not end well. The fundamental problem is the author's description of Pulp.
He says that pulp as a genre "runs on a few simple principles: action, science, and optimism". Ok, that's acceptable; but then he goes on to say "Of these principles, Optimism is the most potent".
Ok, here, he's just fucked up. If these three are your principles (and I'd say its really closer to action, adventure, and progress; not action, science and optimism), the first and foremost both for the genre and for any RPG based on that genre should be action.
The guys who think that Pulp is about "optimism", or about "themes" in general, or try to analyze the layers of pulp? They've missed the point. They're examining Pulp with a backwards glance, from the point of view of someone who might have taken a Comparative Lit class in their sophomore year that dealt with "pulp novels as a socio-economic construction" or some other such bullshit.
Here's a hint: you know why the old comics where Superman, Batman, etc made their debut were called "Action comics", "Adventure comics", "All-star comics"? The superhero genre was the descendant of pulp. Those comics, before they ever had guys in spandex leaping tall buildings, were the cheap-paper storybooks of two-fisted action. They weren't about having a "message" at all. They weren't trying to define an age, they were DEFINED by an age. Specifically, the age of 7-16 years old. They were stories for the kids of the 1920s and 1930s, of action and adventure, of strange lands; and of course they were full of patriotism and "optimism" about the wonders of science and modernity (and uglier things too, like often-blatant racism), because that was zeitgeist of the times.
In other words, the author of this game has gotten it backwards, and this is not so much a Pulp game as it is a game that desperately wants to try to analyze the "themes" of Pulp. Fuck that. If I wanted that, I'd take a community college course, not play an RPG. When I play an RPG, I want to smash nazis; not analyze the socio-historical implications of smashing nazis.
So here is where, in spirit (pardon the pun) the author of the game lost me. But let's proceed to look at the game itself, so you can draw your own conclusions.
Whoops, give me a second here; the PDF has crashed again... fuck, not since the crappy first version of the Shadowrun 4e PDF have I had so many problems with a PDF file.
Ok, back up now. Let's keep count, shall we? That's twice so far in the review that the file has crashed.
The system of Spirit of the Century is a Fudge variant, which is fine if you like Fudge. Its not so fine if you don't care for that system, or if you don't have fudge dice. Yeah, you can always just use D6s, but its more of a hassle. I've always thought this was the great achille's heel of Fudge.
Added to the basic mechanic of Fudge is the use of aspects and fate points. Each character has a set of "aspects", qualities that describe the character (like "does things by the seat of his pants"). If in a situation of action he can figure out a way to fit his aspect into what/how he's doing things, he can spend a Fate point to reroll his dice if he isn't happy with the result. Let me go on record as saying I don't much care for these kinds of mechanics, because they're too easy for players to try to figure out aspects that are usable at almost any time, or to try to find really stupid justifications to why an aspect might fit enough to grant him a re-roll, but at least the rerolls are limited to the number of Fate points available to him.
Character creation begins with picking a pulpy archetype ("explorer", tarzan-esque jungle dude, boy reporter, man of science, adventurous pilot, etc etc), then trying to work out the character's story from their birth in 1901 to the time of the Great War (WWI), and how they got into the Century Club.
So far so good, but here's where (IMO) it gets stupid. After this, you are supposed to write a kind of blurb for a Pulp Novel that Your Character Starred In!! Hooray, useless work for the players to do in a constricting format!
Then, for extra stupidity, you have to "guest star" in some of the other player's novels.
Supposedly, the whole thing is as a way to explain the PCs relationships to each other, and to elaborate on the kind of adventures your PC has. But the whole things stinks of Forgist nonsense to me. Why is that format necessary? Do you really need to work out the blurb to "Doc Fantastic and the Lost Valley of Roi-Rama" to know the sort of stuff Doc Fantastic would be into doing? If so, you probably shouldn't be playing Pulp yet.
Does your GM need it to know what you as a player would like? If so, he probably shouldn't be GMing.
Its after this that he picks his aspects, stunts, and skills, and the character is complete.
Again, while the mechanical side of this is relatively rules-lite, none of it strikes me as fitting the author's purported goal of being a pick-up game.
A "pick-up" game is something like Feng-Shui, where you have a number of character archetypes fitting the genre already statted out, pick two or three options for them, think of a two line background for them, and GO.
Between having to write three or four novel proposals, think up which aspects you can make for your character (and how to get a good spread so you're almost always guaranteed the munchkinism of using fate points), and deciding on stunts and skills, as well as your entire fucking life story from 1901 till the date the game starts, you're looking at character creation taking an entire game session, easily.
So much for pick-up.
Aspects aren't all good, supposedly. They also have a negative element. You can have aspects that represent character flaws, which the GM can compel to come up, creating trouble for your character. The player can also choose to have these problems come up in different circumstances. And he almost certainly will if the GM doesn't do it often enough, since this is the way to gain more Fate Points.
Have I mentioned before that I don't like games that fix roleplaying to mechanical rewards? You know what you get when you do that? That's right: mechanical roleplaying.
And again, it seems way too artsy-fartsy for either a Pulp game or a "pick-up" game.
At least, to the author's credit, he does present a handy and relatively lengthy list of "example aspects" that players can pick from, so that they can save at least a bit of time from what will no doubt be a lengthy character creation process.
You can really tell we're deep in Forge country when the author decides that all conflict is resolved in exactly the same way. In other words, combat and, say, bartering over the price of corn, are resolved with the same set of mechanics. You have the players rolling against the NPCs or groups of NPCs (minions, a mook rule) to get their way. The author actually describes "attacks" as "an attempt to force the attacker's agenda on a target".
Fuck that. I mean seriously. In a PULP game of all places! In a Pulp game, I want an "attack" to mean my fist pounding on Herr Shickelgruber's face; not me trying to use my "rapport" skill to "make a good first impression" with the fishing license office beaurocrat.
If I have to chit-chat with some people before I get to beat back the hordes of savages between me and the lost Temple of the Golden Monkey, I don't want to have to worry about taking "damage" to my "social and mental" state causing me to be unable to "keep it together" in a discussion. NOT IN A FUCKING PULP GAME.
Did I mention another thing I utterly despise are games that try to resolve social conflicts by a set of rolls instead of actually just ROLEPLAYING the fucking scene?
Shit. The PDF froze again. Give me a sec here...
Ok, back. That's three times so far.
The sections on skills and stunts are thurough and well-detailed; again, well-detailed for a full-blown heavy-commitment RPG, probably far too well-detailed for a "pick-up" game.
On the bright side, there's one good thing I can say about this system compared to most Pulp games I've seen: the author keeps the Gadget-construction rules miraculously simple. Far too many pulp games I've seen concern themselves excessively with gadgetry having a complex sub-system that slows games down to a screeching halt. Spirit of the Century avoids this, by making the construction of a gadget into just another roll, with the difficulty to create said gadget based on the estimated value of the gadget. Here, I credit the author.
All of these parts I've talked about, the mechanics, have taken up roughly the first 285 pages of the game. From here, it goes into giving GM advice on how to run the game. The advice ranges from the roughly straight-forward; like explaining that in a Pulp game its perfectly acceptable for characters to already start wherever you want them to be (ie. not have to bother with putting together the whole expedition to "darkest Africa" and just have the players starting the session there), to the outright Forgey to the point of actually citing Ron Edwards' Sorceror and the utterly stupid term "bangs"; which is Forgese for what most of us just call "giving the players an important choice". Apparently this is so foreign to some people that the author felt he had to dedicate an entire section to explaining it.
Some of the advice is even directly contradictory with the structure of the game. If, as the author suggests in this section, "Action" is the most important part of "keeping it pulpy" then why the fuck is combat relegated by the system to being no less or more significant than the mechanic for writing up a budget proposal?
Following a sample scenario ("The Nether Agenda"), the book gets into describing the "secrets" of the particular "century club" setting. I don't think its too big of a spoiler to reveal that the PCs and other members of the Century club, born on the first day of the new century, are somehow exceptional beings that will work to shape the nature of the upcoming century. But there's also apparently another group of people, born on the last day of the previous century, who become their dark equivalent, nemeses that will in some form or another try to bring ruin to this age. Likewise, there are rumours of other, more powerful beings in the mix who may be manipulating both of these groups from behind the scenes. As a concept, this is all very neat, and nicely explains why the PCs characters would be superior to other men. Of course, this has to all be translated into some mechanics, because its just that kind of game, where the character will eventually come to understand the particular part of the spirit of the century that they embody, and be able to use that to their benefit. At least here the mechanical side of things is kept mercifully lite, even though at this point it really doesn't help things much.
A number of sample members of the Century Club are included for GM use, most of whom have fairly silly names (like "Jack B. Nimble, Gentleman Burgler"). A number of "shadow centurions" (the aforementioned bad guys) are also described, including "Dr.Methuselah, the mathemagician" who is seeking the "eternity equation", and "Gorilla Khan, the Conqueror Ape", because.. well, because any pulp game needs a decent Gorilla character.
Next you get a guide to some of the important historical elements of the setting's period, things like the telegraph, Prohibition, the League of Nations, or the Nazis, which I guess some people might need details to grasp given the state of History as a subject in today's education system. The book also gives some good details about the geographical state of the world, even detailing places like the Republic of Brazil, explaining the British Empire for those who might not be familiar with it, etc. Finally, there's a decent though not exceptional timeline detailing history from 1901-1924.
At the end, we get what could be considered the appendices; the first of which has a set of "quick pick stunt packs", putting together a few stunts to fit a number of various archetypes, to help shorten down the character creation process. Why the author thought to do this with just stunts and not to just go whole-hog and make a set of Feng-Shui like character archetypes to make things truly speedy is utterly beyond me. As it is, this certainly helps, with the stunts. But not enough.
Then you get the bibliography, and a listing of the stats for the sample NPCs mentioned earlier, and you're done.
And, just for shits and giggles, and I swear to the magic deer I'm not making this up, the fucking PDF file decided to freeze on me one last time just as I was scrolling down to the index. That's four, count 'em, four times I had the PDF freeze on me just in the course of writing this review.
I should note that other than the PDF freezing element, the production on the product is relatively high. The cover is full-colour and very nice, there's sufficient black-and-white art throughout the book that is topical and looks good, and the organization of the PDF is well laid-out. The PDF also has extensive bookmarks, perhaps almost too extensive, especially if that has anything to do with why this PDF is so fucking unstable.
So in conclusion:
The Good: Well, not much. Its a pulp game, I guess. It runs on Fudge, which is an easy system to understand and play, though not to everyone's taste. The section on GM advice is pretty complete. The overall concept of the "Century Club" is fairly cool, I'll admit. All this is acceptable, if you want a Forge-y kind of take on the Pulp game that focuses more on "themes" than on adventuring.
The Bad: If you haven't drunk the Ron Edwards Kool-aid special, this game will likely have a number of aspects that are unappealing to you, like having to write out fucking short stories to create your character, and having to resolve role-playing situations with die rolls instead of, say, role play. Also, the PDF freezes. A whole fucking lot. By that I mean far more often than PDFs usually do on my machine.
The Ugly: In my view, the author fails utterly on two counts: First, this isn't an RPG for playing Pulp games. Its an RPG for exploring the sophisticated themes that underly the pulp genre, if you can buy that. In other words, to me it seems to miss the point of why people would want to play a pulp game to begin with: which is not to think about the dissilusionment of modernism and the myth of progress, or shit like that; but to just have some good old fashioined two-fisted action. The author places the first priority on the thematic and not on the entertaining.
Second, and perhaps far more damning, the game is utterly misrepresented in my opinion when it is sold as a "Pick-up" game. If this is the Forge's idea of a pick-up game, its time to go back to the kiln. The game should have been sold as a game for full-blown campaigning and for a more intellectual (or I'd say pseudo-intellectual) take on the Pulp genre where players are expected to put a great deal of effort into creating sophisticated characters that embrace particular concepts, and GM are expected to do a lot of work to incorporate these concepts and themes into adventures that carry a sub-text just beneath the surface of exploring said themes. In no way shape or form is this level of commitment the sort of thing that can be associated with a game that you can just pick up and dive into the action with.
Well, I did warn you guys: send me a game, in print or PDF format (print is way cooler for me, but all PDFs, even ones that freeze up, are accepted), and I WILL review it on here, and on theRPGsite for you. But like I said, I give NO promises that the game will receive a positive, much less a flattering, review. Like I did here, I'll always try to find what might be appealing in the game even if it isn't always appealing to me, and try to make the review as complete as possible so that people can reach their own conclusions. But especially, I will review the game with the criteria in mind of whether the game actually lives up to what YOU the author claims its supposed to do; or whether it fails at that, or whether it does something else altogether.
So if you want your game to be read about by hundreds of regular readers of my blog and the nearly one-thousand strong membership of theRPGsite, send it my way.
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