Kinda coming full circle here.
The good folks atÂ Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting ofÂ Shadow of the Century, a newÂ Fate Core game. As they usually do, theÂ HatÂ folks had me sign a Disclosure agreement when they accepted my playtest application – I’m supposed to talk about my experience playtesting the game in public.
Long-time readers of this blog may recall that’s how this blog got started, when I was playtestingÂ The Dresden Files RPG.
So, I’m going to be talking aboutÂ Shadow of the Century playtest here. And I’m starting today with an overview of the game based on my reading of the playtest document.
AÂ Fate Core Game
First things first:Â Shadows of the CenturyÂ is not a stand-alone game. It requiresÂ Fate Core rules to play the game – that’s where you’ll find all the mechanics for rolling dice, the four actions you can take, how fate points work, how conflict works, etc.
Fate CoreÂ rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal ((Yeah, that means that you can download it free and pay nothing. But a lot of work goes into game books – show them a little monetary love. The game’s totally worth it.)), so you’ve got no excuse for not having them ((Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here.)).
What’sÂ Shadow of the CenturyÂ About?
The firstÂ Evil HatÂ game I ever saw, read, and played wasÂ Spirit of the Century.Â It’s a pulp game, featuring the remarkable members of the Century Club having adventures and fighting foes like Gorilla Khan, Der Blitzermann, and Dr. Methuselah.
Shadow of the Century takes place in the same world, a half-century later. The members of the Century Â club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man ((Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!”)) is keeping everyone down. It’s a dark time for the world. Heroes are needed.
Thankfully, a new generation of heroes is rising up. They aren’t the innocent idealists of the Century Club ((Now disbanded and outlawed.)) – they are streetwise, rough-and-tumble folks who sometimes blur the lines in their attempt to help people.
Well, not all of them. Some are kids who belong to the Hu-Dunnit mystery club. Or engineering students at the Cross School. Or selfless paramedics and drivers with Phoenix Rescue. Or…
This game is set up to emulate the action movies, TV shows, and cartoons of the 80s, the same way thatÂ Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things likeÂ The A-Team,Â Miami Vice,Â The Greatest American Hero,Â Big Trouble in Little China, this is the game to do it.
Gonzo and Spirit
Now, there’s a real difference in the craziness that is acceptable inÂ Miami Vice versus, say,Â Big Trouble in Little China. You set that craziness level withe Gonzometer, which helps determine what kinds of characters and story elements are acceptable. At the low end, you get bad-ass-but-mundane folks like Thomas Magnum and his friends standing up to corrupt organizations and crime cartels. At the high end, you get Flash Gordon and his ilk fending off interdimensional invasions and time-traveling robots.
Heroes can, depending on the Gonzometer setting, have varying degrees of special abilities. These usually cost a little more, and don’t so much increase the power of the characters as give them a few more options and add narrative colour to the descriptions of the character’s actions.
That’s for the New Wave Heroes – the heroes of the 80s. There is an option to play a Spirit; one of the original members of the Century Club, born in 1900 and embodying a universal idea about the world. For example, Jet Black is the Spirit of Today, and Mack Silver was the Spirit of Trade. Where as New Wave Heroes’ abilities are “powered” ((Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different.)) by Gonzo, Spirits’ abilities are powered by Spirit.
This means that one of the first choices players make is whether they are playing New Wave Heroes ((Though this is the default assumption.)) or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.
Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea inÂ The Atomic Robo RPG, anotherÂ Fate CoreÂ game ((They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPGÂ here, if you’re interested.)). TheÂ Shadow implementation of the idea is a little simpler and cleaner, and leads to what I expect to be pretty quick character creation.
The idea behind roles is that you pick three, which give you a boost to certain skills and a list of potential stunts. There’s a list of 16 roles in the book, and easy instructions for creating more. Each role gives you a +1 to four skills, so if you’ve got a skill in two roles, it starts at Fair (+2). If it’s listed in all three roles, you start at Good (+3).
After the roles are picked and the skill boosts noted, you get to pick a total of three stunts from the lists in each of your roles. And you get a few more skill points to spread around your skills ((There is no Skill Pyramid, or Skill Columns. The roles make sure you have a good rating in the skills important to your character concept, and there’s a skill cap so you can’t dump 8 skill points on Shoot to only know how to use guns.)).
This is aÂ Fate Core game, so of course aspects are central. Your character has five aspects, only two of which – High Concept and Trouble – you need to define before play begins. There are the standard ((Or almost standard, any way.)) phases of character creation coming up with ideas for your aspects and brainstorming with the whole group.
Other Cool Stuff
There are a number of other things in the game that deserve a brief mention.
- Montages. As the song fromÂ Team America: World PoliceÂ says, “EvenÂ RockyÂ had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous ((And alliterative!)) aspects to a scene.
- Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature inÂ Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to everyÂ FateÂ game I’ve run. The rules for mobs inÂ Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated forÂ Fate Core, and they take care of some of the problems I’ve seen porting the old rule to the new system, so that’s good.
- Milestones. Milestones are the points at which characters can be advanced. TheÂ Shadow rules for milestones are carefully tuned to represent the source material – the more an adventure runs like an 80s action show, and the closer the characters cleave to the tropes, the better they’ll hit their milestones.
- Organizations.Â Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world.Â Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal ((The Fate Fractal is the idea that ANYTHING in the game can be statted up just like a character, using a couple of aspects and a couple of skill ratings. It’s a powerful idea that really opens up the idea of quantifying things like storms, cities, police departments, diseases, etc. Anything. You can read more about it here.)) to stat up these organizations quickly and easily, each one taking about an index card of space to completely detail what they can do and what they want.
- Campaign Frames. The game also has three campaign frames, for groups that want to start playing right away and don’t mind using pregenerated characters. They all look fun, though my favourite has to beÂ Team Black, anÂ A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black ((Jet Black is a Centurion who flies with a jet pack. He, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, Benjamin Hu, Professor Khan, and Amelia Stone feature in the fiction line from Evil Hat.))Â cast as Hannibal Smith.
- VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation forÂ variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah ((At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations.)), has rewritten and overwritten the timeline often enough that it’s kind of worn and tattered. There are holes – into other times, other dimensions, other realities – that can cause problems. Now, how prevalent VHS is is tied to your Gonzometer setting, but it gives you some cool ways to add in strangeness and otherworldly danger.
- The Backstory. The game gives a fair bit of detail on how the world has changed sinceÂ Spirit, and what’s happened to a lot of the big players. I’m not going to give too much away, but I think they’ve done a great job on showing how the shining, hopeful early part of the century turned into the dark, despairing 80s. It’s a good read.
What’s the Plan?
Well, we’ve got until May 20 to run our playtests and get our reports in. I’ve got a group of five players signed up for this little romp, and we’re planning our Pitch Session for next week. I want to get three or four more play sessions in before the deadline.
I plan to post a report on this blog after each session. I may also post some other stuff on things I think about the new system during play.
I’m not going to be posting a lot of specifics, though. I’ll talk about how the sessions went, and the cool stuff we did, and the cool things the game allows, but I’m not going to drill down into the actual mechanics and such.Â Evil Hat will be getting those reports from me, but not the public. This is a beta playtest document, and subject to change – there’s no point in talking about details that aren’t final. Take a look at theÂ DFRPGÂ playtest stuff for examples of the kind of stuff I’ll be posting.
I hope you follow along on our little adventure. Feel free to ask questions but, again, I’m not gonna get too specific. I will answer what I can, though.
It’ll be rad!