Into the Shadows

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Kinda coming full circle here.

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting of Shadow of the Century, a new Fate Core game. As they usually do, the Hat 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 playtesting The Dresden Files RPG.

So, I’m going to be talking about 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.

A Fate Core Game

First things first: Shadows of the Century is not a stand-alone game. It requires 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 Core rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal1, so you’ve got no excuse for not having them2.

What’s Shadow of the Century About?

The first Evil Hat game I ever saw, read, and played was Spirit of the Century. 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  club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man3 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 Club4 – 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 that Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things like The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Greatest American Hero, 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 in Miami Vice versus, say, 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”5 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 Heroes6 or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.

Roles

Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea in The Atomic Robo RPG, another Fate Core game7. The 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 skills8.

Aspects

This is a 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 standard9 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 from Team America: World Police says, “Even Rocky had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous10 aspects to a scene.
  • Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature in Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to every Fate game I’ve run. The rules for mobs in Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated for 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. The 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. Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world. Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal11 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 be Team Black, an A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black12 cast as Hannibal Smith.
  • VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation for variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah13, 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 since 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. 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 the DFRPG 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!

  1. 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. []
  2. Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here. []
  3. Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!” []
  4. Now disbanded and outlawed. []
  5. Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different. []
  6. Though this is the default assumption. []
  7. They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPG here, if you’re interested. []
  8. 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. []
  9. Or almost standard, any way. []
  10. And alliterative! []
  11. 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. []
  12. 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. []
  13. At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations. []

Character Building

I’ve been a little lax about posting this past week or so because I’ve been caught up in preparation for a few games. One of the games is a playtest of the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay*, another is the next installment of the Hunter – Shadow Wars episodic campaign, and then there’s the bookkeeping for the Storm Point campaign, and the pregame development of Scio Occultus Res.

But the work I’m doing on the games has got me thinking about building characters in games, and the different systems the games offer and why, and the different goals and ideals that players have when building characters. See, I’ve been building some pregens for the WHFRP playtest, some NPCs for the Shadow Wars game, and watching my players build their characters for SOR. I’ve also been reading some other games, like Starblazer Adventures, Mutant City Blues, Two-Fisted Tales, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, and Mongoose’s latest iteration of the classic Traveller.

What I’ve noticed is that character building systems in game sit on a continuum of customizability, ranging from games where you pick an archetypical character and play it to games where you build each individual aspect of the character. There really isn’t anything at either extreme of the continuum; even a system that focuses on archetypes like Feng Shui or Shadowrun lets you customize a few aspects of the character, and even a game where you build almost everything from scratch like Unknown Armies or Spirit of the Century has a few predefined elements that you need to use to create your character.

In the middle of the road, though, you find the race/class systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the skill-based systems, like Call of Cthulhu. Each still has components of the other in it – you get to pick skills and feats to customize your character in D&D, and your choice of profession shapes your skill picks in CoC.

This says to me that , as gamers, we tend to like the ability to build the kind of character we want to play in a game with few restrictions, but we also want a bit of a structure to help realize the ideals we have in relation to the rules. It also seems that the more detailed and low-trust* the rules system is, the more the structure is needed to make the mechanics of character interact properly with the mechanics of task resolution and other systems.

Character building also sets the tone for the game. Consider that, in D&D, most players look at the concept of roles for picking their classes. Now, roles really only impact the game in combat, which leads to the tacit assumption that combat is going to be the most important part of the game. The majority of rules in the game deal with combat in one way or another, from the powers of the characters to entire books of monsters to fight. Now look at a game like Mage: The Awakening. In that game, first you build a normal human, then transform him or her into a wizard. That leads to the tacit assumption that the themes of transformation, alienation from mundane life, and the price of power are going to be present in the game, leading to a more introspective, internal focus for play.

Some systems even have mechanics for building in backstory for your character. The Burning Wheel is a primary example, along with Traveller and Spirit of the Century. Some things you get to pick, but some you don’t, and your choices may restrict or open certain other choices for you. Classic Traveller even had the chance your character would die during character generation, forcing you to start from scratch with a new character*. This can be very useful for games where you really want a bit of depth to the characters, and it leads to assumptions that character history and motivations are going to feature in the game.

Traditionally, once you have your characters created, you throw them together into a group, have them meet in a tavern, and they all decide to risk their lives together. Kind of cheesy, but it works. Now, however, many games are going out of their way to build in reasons why the characters work together, helping the GM give the disparate characters a history together. The brilliant novel idea from SotC and other FATE games is one example, where everyone winds up with connections to at least two other people in the group. WHFRP now has a party sheet, which gives the group a reason to work together, along with benefits and perils specific to that type of group. Traveller mixes and matches this, giving characters a chance to link themselves to other characters during character creation, and then pick a group skill package to represent why they’re together and what they get out of it.

As a GM, I like these sorts of ideas. It takes some of the pressure off when the players are the ones who decide why they’re together and what they want from each other.

And, of course, some character generation systems appeal more to different players than other do.

Me, I like random in character creation. I like rolling the dice and having them dictate aspects of my character, trying to fit the disparate pieces together into something that I want to play. Others I know hate the random method, because they have a much more developed idea of what they want their character to be, and don’t want to let the dice ruin it. And some just don’t like the inequity of randomness, where some characters may start out just plain better than others. I can understand that.

And then there are those players to whom the system trappings of the character are just so much decoration -  the real heart of the character is his or her inner life. See, I like a character that can do something mechanically different from the others in the party; it gives me the chance to stand out in areas where I excel, and it prevents me from stepping on other players when their characters have the chance to shine. But I know some players who are more than content playing the “other fighter” because the attitude, behaviour, motivations, drives, and reactions are all different.

These things come up in character development, too. Some plan out each little advancement, whether in a level-based system or a skill-based system, doing their best to tweak their character to fit the ideal in their head. Others take advancement as it comes, and make their choices based on what seems to fit best at the time. This has some connection with the optimization ideas I discussed back here, but it’s not always about min-maxing.

I think this is part of what keeps most character generation systems near the mid-point of that continuum I mentioned earlier. Developers are trying to make a system that works for the largest number of players. Which is good, because you want more player buying your stuff, but leads to a bit of conservatism in the big games out there. In RPGs, the big guns are definitely Wizards of the Coast, with D&D, and White Wolf, with their World of Darkness games. Both of these have stuck very strongly to their core race/class, abilities, and skills through multiple iterations.

It’s the independent games that are pushing the envelope, coming up with cool new ways to build characters. The FATE games, The Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard all have innovative new twists to their character creation that can be looted for other games – the novel idea from FATE, the idea of drives from The Burning Wheel, and the crux moment from Dogs in the Vineyard are all things that can usefully be lifted into pretty much any game.

And then there’s creating NPCs. This is, of necessity, different than creating PCs. As a GM, when you create an NPC, you generally have a specific purpose for him or her, a story role or goal that the character fills. Maybe he’s the villain, or the mentor, or the annoying dependent. Maybe she’s a love interest or a rival or an obstacle. This purpose shapes the type of character you create, but I also find that I shape the character based on what I know about how my group reacts to different things. In the Storm Point game, for example, I know that if I send a halfling NPC anywhere near the party, I’m just asking for him to be distrusted (and possibly stomped), so I only use a halfling if that’s the sort of reaction I want to provoke, or if I’m trying to prove to them that all halflings aren’t deceitful, manipulative crooks.

Of course, you don’t need nearly as much mechanical background for NPCs as you do for PCs. All you need is enough information for the NPC to serve his or her purpose. For longer-running NPCs, you may eventually need to come up with an almost-complete set of stats, but if the only reason the PCs are going to talk to the bartender is to find out that the guy they’re looking for isn’t in the bar, you barely even need a name.

Having said that, one thing that I did in the Dresden Files playtest is create a number of characters along side the players, and then use my characters as NPCs during play. This worked especially well using the DFRPG rules, because of the novel stage, where my NPCs wound up with nice connections to several of the PCs. This meant that the PCs had NPC contacts they could call on in play, contacts that they had a history with. I really liked it.

I think the point I’m trying to make in this post is that there are a myriad of systems for creating characters, and a myriad of ways that players – and GMs – look at making characters. Whatever method you use has got to suit both the game and the players, and that you shouldn’t be afraid of mixing and matching elements from other games to make the types of characters your group likes. Remember that the game isn’t what’s written in the rulebooks; it’s what happens at the table, when you and your friends sit down and start playing.

Do what you need to do in order to give yourself the characters that you need. Characters that you will remember and talk about. Look around, try out new things, read other games, experiment. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If something does work, keep doing it.

And remember. Games are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

*About which I will post a full report when the playtest is done. Back

*Low-trust is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that both the players and the GM can have a solid, shared understanding of just what is and is not possible for the character. High-trust is not a bad thing, either. It means that both the players and GM have more of a chance of surprising each other with something cool. Back

*Mongoose’s new Traveller has a more interesting (IMO) mishap table, where something bad happens and you have to leave your current career, but it retains the death option in what it refers to as Iron Man Character Creation. Back

Deadly Island Pick-Up Game

Tonight was supposed to be our Shadowlands D&D 3.5 game, run by my friend Clint, but we had to cancel because one of the players is sick*. So, four of us were sort of at loose ends, looking for something to do rather than just call the evening off. I suggested some board games, but Clint asked if there was any one-shot I was prepared to run.

Now, running some one-shots is one of my goals with my change in gaming priorities, so I suggested possibly Mutant City Blues or Trail of Cthulhu, two games that I’ve been wanting to try, but haven’t got around to, yet. The problem was prep time; This was at about 1:00, and game time was 7:00. I didn’t have time to adequately prep the games, create characters*, re-read the adventure, and get back up to speed on the system, and also take care of the other stuff I have to do today.

And then I remembered Spirit of the Century.

Some time ago, I came up with and organized a Spirit of the Century Pick-Up League, with the bold plan of encouraging the play of the game in our group. We created characters, posted our character novels, and played a session. Everyone had a good time, and we agreed we should do it again.

That was more than two years ago. Life gets in the way, sometimes. But tonight was a great opportunity to resurrect the League, throw together an adventure, and play SotC again.

That’s what I did.

I broke some of the rules in the League Charter*, in the interests of time. I cribbed the adventure from the adventure design section of the rulebook, where they have the skeletons of five or six different adventures mapped out for the GM. And I didn’t send out an invite, both because of the time and because I wasn’t hosting the game. I cobbled together two pages of notes, shoved the rulebook and my Fudge dice in my bag, and away I went.

I started with the characters – Sky Knight, Artemis Argo, and Myra Hawkridge – going on the maiden voyage of the New Golden Hind*, a galvanic turbine driven ship designed by Dr. Hubert Toynbee. The ship, designed to run at a steady 70 knots and to withstand extremely rough seas, was going to make a crossing from Liverpool to New York, and the members of the Century Club were going to go along for the ride.

On my notes, this section of the trip took up about half a sentence. In play, it ran to about an hour, because everyone was having fun with the idea of the trip, and I kept elaborating on the ship, and playing up Toynbee’s intense scientist mode. So, we stuck with this bit for as long as people were enjoying it.

When I felt the time was right, and there was no more to explore on the ship, I moved on to the next scene: the terrible storm that wrecks the ship and strands our heroes (and a bunch of extras) on a mysterious jungle island in the North Atlantic*. There they found a cave for shelter, and spotted some old ruins up the side of an extinct volcano.

After getting shelters set up and water found and food gathered, our heroes took off to explore the jungle. They were called back to camp by gunshots, and found that velociraptors had attacked*, carrying off one of the sailors. Being pulp heroes, the characters set off into the jungle, following the trail. Along the way, they fought some velociraptors of their own, and some pterodactyls, and a sabre-tooth tiger*.

Then, of course, the Ultramegasaurus showed up and chased them. This was a (completely fictitious) dinosaur that was too big and fierce for them to actually hurt, but Argo used a great little feature of the game to declare that the thing’s vision was movement-based, like a frog or a T-rex, and he and Myra froze while Sky Knight lured it away.

When the group made it up to the ruins, where the trail led, they found a mostly-insane scientist had saved their sailor from the dinosaurs, and was trying to use him to bargain for a way off the island and away from the evil Dr. Methuselah – one of the game’s iconic archvillains, with the ability to use math to alter reality. It seems Dr. Methuselah was planning to bring through a host of Ultramegasauri through a time-gate that had already brought through other dinosaurs, smilodons, and the tropical climate*. As the poor deranged scientist was begging to be taken away, Dr. Methuselah solved him out of the reality equation, and he vanished.

Which led to the showdown in the time lab, which ended with Argo throwing a stone chair through the time machine and Sky Knight and Myra co-operating to decapitate Dr. Methuselah, thanks to their arcane or hyper-technological abilities.

Of course, that didn’t stop Dr. Methuselah from continuing to talk.

So they stuck his head in one box, his body in another, and, now that the time portal wasn’t messing with radio transmissions anymore, Sky Knight called in the Draco to pick everyone up and snow started to fall.

The game was a blast, and everyone had a lot of fun. I think that I’m going to have to start working to revive the League, have another character creation session for those that don’t have characters, and get things moving again.

Because I want someone else to run a game so I can play.

 
 
 

*Hope you feel better soon, Fera. Back

*Y’know, Pelgrane Press, some generic pre-gen characters for your GUMSHOE games downloadable from your website would be a great thing to add. Just sayin’. Back

*I made ’em, I can break ’em. Back

*It started out called The New Argo, but then Tom chose to play Artemis Argo, so that name didn’t work anymore, and I had to come up with a new one on the spot. I think I did pretty good. Back

*Yeah, I know. But it’s a pulp game, and when you get shipwrecked in a pulp game, it happens on a jungle island. And probably dinosaurs will show up soon. Anyway, I explained it in-game. Back

*See? Dinosaurs! Back

*I did mention this was a pulp game, didn’t I? Back

*Told you I explained it. Back