Spirit of the Century Review

Monday, September 18, 2006

Spirit of the Century by Evil Hat Productions
6x9 hardcover, 420 pages

Recommended Purchase

First, this is the pulp RPG you've always wanted. You know who you are. You don't need to read this review. Just go buy it.

Now, let's talk about the book. I haven't played the game yet, so this is a review of the book and its concepts, not of actual play. My short review of the book is, "Solid gold and white noise." I'll explain what I mean by that.

Solid Gold
Spirit is filled to bursting with good ideas. Every core game design element just sings. Character creation, conflict resolution, adventure design... it's all brilliant and perfect for the type of pulpy goodness the game wants to create. I really can't praise it enough. I know my pulps, and this game gets it right. A few of the high points...

Character Creation
The multi-phased character creation (similar to the method in FATE) establishes a great pulpy feel for each character, by focusing the player's creative energies on a classic "origin story" for the character. It even includes a phase in which you create your hero's pulp novel, which also ties-in to the other PCs and provides traits for your character based on the action from the novel. It's super cool.

The skill pyramid (also from FATE) is another very clever system. Each character has a single primary skill at Superb (the thing they're best at). Then below that you have two skills at Great, three at Good, four at Fair, and five at Average -- forming a "pyramid" of skills. This visual representation makes character creation a snap. Instead of spending "levels" or character points, you just fill in the blanks on the pyramid.

In addition to skills (which are picked from a list), characters also have Aspects (like "Nick of Time" or "Loves Sally"), which are created by the players. These are qualities -- relationships, beliefs, catch-phrases, items -- that can be activated for bonuses when they help, or farmed for Fate Points (a metagame resource) when they hinder the character. They're like a combination of Keys from TSOY, Muses from Nine Worlds, d4 traits from Dogs, and disads from HERO. In short, they are awesome. Having player-authored character traits in addition to the skill-list picks really helps the pulp feel since each character has something in common with the other heroes AND some stuff that's unique and quirky of their own.

And, even cooler, aspects are not just for PCs. NPCs have aspects, as do locations and things in the game. A lost temple might have aspects like "deadly traps," "dark corridors," and "lava pits." Players (and the GM) could activate these aspects during a conflict to help their character or hinder someone else. Players can also perform maneuvers to place temporary aspects on a foe, like "blinded" or "on fire." This is a *very* elegant way to handle the impact of tactics, environment and color details on a scene. Aspects are probably the coolest thing about the system, period.

Conflict Resolution
Speaking of the system, resolution is a snap. Spirit uses a new version of the FATE system, which is based on Fudge. You roll four Fudge dice and then modify your trait level accordingly to find your final result. If you match or beat the difficulty level, you succeed. For extended conflicts, you put "stress" on your opponent when you win a roll, and the conflict ends when the someone runs out of stress (and starts taking serious consequences) or gives up (to avoid those nasty consequences). It's nice and simple, and can handle all sorts of conflicts. And it's cooler than I make it sound. I'm glossing over some stuff because this review is already longer than I planned.

Examples, Examples, Examples
So, why is this simple pulp rpg 420 pages long? Because the book tells you how to play the game. Often. Aggressively. With flair. The book doesn't just have "examples," it has a mission of relating everything it says to real, at-the-table play. Ramifications are spelled out, possible hurdles are addressed, "why it's cool when you do this" is explained in detail. For this reason, Spirit has become my new pick for "first RPG" for people who are already gamers of some stripe (board, card, whatever). It's crunchy enough to interest them, and it explains how to play (and why) really, really well. (For the record, the best "first RPG" for non-gamers is a tie between Primetime Adventures and Shooting the Moon. So, good company.)

Adventure Creation
Three different methods of creating pulpy situations are given in the book. And one of them is super-mega-awesome. The adventure section in general is awesome, and addresses everything a GM needs to get a Spirit game up and running, probably with a minimal amount of time and effort expended. The game bills itself as a "pick up and play" sort of game, and there are plenty of good methods presented to make this happen. The ultra-quick PC generation method, for example, is genius. It's so good, I'd probably use it for standard play, as well. Like Fred Hicks's other game, Don't Rest Your Head, Spirit helps the GM by telling her precisely how to drive the game by using the stuff the players have written on their character sheets. This has become something of a trend in design, and I'm very happy to see it explained so lucidly here.

White Noise
So, what's this "white noise" I'm talking about? In general, it comes from Spirit's attempt to cater to lots of different play styles. There are many places where the book bends over backward to accomodate three (or five) styles of play at once, and as a result, some of the good stuff in the book is hidden by a layer of "white noise" -- backpedaling or undercutting to make the system less radical or in-your-face. This is not really a bad thing at all. I just happen to prefer a more direct, uncompromising voice in game books and when Spirit gets wishy-washy, I notice it. This may be a result of having multiple authors, since Fred's own game, Don't Rest Your Head doesn't have any white noise at all.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Fate Points: The game has solid rules for how Fate points can be spent and gained. They are clear and unambiguous. However, each explanation is accompanied by phrases such as "If the GM approves," and "If the GM thinks it's appropriate," which are just white-noise static to me. There's no need for this "mother may I" phase in the system. The game works perfectly without it. Thus, "white noise." The need to cater to "GM approval" for so-called "metagame" systems is a feature of old-shool game design that is just not serving a useful purpose in a game like Spirit. As I said, the rules for how Fate works are perfectly solid and clear. Any use of those rules can be "approved" or not by the group, just like any other system.

Resolving maneuvers: Again, there's a solid system for this, including a way for players to use action rolls to add or remove aspects from a scene. It's very cool. Then we get a phrase like this, "Whatever the result [of the roll], the GM can decide whether or not the change the character makes merits adding or removing an aspect to the scene." More white noise. There's a solid, good game system here, and then we're told that the GM can ignore it and just say what happens. Wha? The addition of the "GM decides" sentence adds static to an otherwise clear passage. The system is solid and really, really good. There's no reason to backpedal and throw it all back out to GM fiat.

That's probably enough to show what I mean. I don't want to belabor the point. Like I said, this "white noise" is mostly harmless for most readers. (Though for first-timers, I worry that it could start some bad habits). The book would certainly be better without it, but it doesn't detract all that much.

The End
So, that's my take on Spirit of the Century. It's one of the best traditional RPGs I've read in a while (I mean "traditional" as in, "has a single GM and non-shared PCs"). It's by far the best design for pulp-gaming ever made (and that is a huge compliment, considering some of the other games that have come before).

I give it an A. It's a must-buy. Go. Get it. Play. Be rocked.

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Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Rock on, John! Thanks for giving Spirit such a lengthy treatment. I'm all aglow, and I'm sure Rob Donoghue and Lenny Balsera are as well!

Blogger Brand Robins says:  


When I read a review like this, I feel compelled to respond to everything you said point by point. It's a complex process, so hold on to your hat.

Yes. I agree.

Yes. I agree.

Yes. I agree.

Yes, exactly.

Of course.



There, I hope that wasn't to long.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Heh, I'm ok with not being radical, but you're right, the attempts to comment on the GMs role do seem to pop up a bit too much in an oddly one-off fashion. I know what that was in there to address, but it strikes me as something that we might be better served in Dresden by setting aside some space for talking about the GM, authority, and generally not being stupid, and let that simply be inferred in the specific. Hmm.

Blogger Brand Robins says:  


I'd also suggest that many groups already have some idea of how they play. If they're in a group where the GM is going to have the authority to over-ride rules, then when they read rules the "GM can override" tag is probably already there. If they are in a group where such things are a no go, then they're going to be mentally erasing it everytime they see it. (My group sure will.) The only times when this is not true are when you have whole sections, explicity backed up by mechanics, about how in this game YOU MUST DO THIS THING OR BE CHEATING (such as in Dogs).

So I think your sidebar thing is probably a better idea. Give them the rules as the rules should work, and talk about the way the group can use or not use the rules in a specific place rather than as a running contradiction through the text.

Blogger John Harper says:  

That sounds like a good idea, Rob.

Brand, when can end our pointless bickering? I guess we just have to agree to agree.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

I see the white noise as a pleasant hum that lulls the reader to sleep, like an ocean noise making machine, more than an annoying background whine, if that makes any sense.

Those hedges are easily discarded by folks who know how to discard them, and they're there to lull folks who aren't entirely comfortable with all these pervy-indie thoughts of ours into feeling, oh, well, everything will be just fine, after all, the GM's still entirely in control.

I'd be just as happy to ditch them... but I wonder about the "shoulds" there, when we're positioning our Fate-based games as potential first-timer games.

Blogger John Harper says:  

I wouldn't presume to make marketing suggestions for you. You know your consumers better than I do. Maybe they need that stuff.

For my own taste, the white noise "should" go away, but you're not just selling to me. :)

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Totally fair. And note, I ain't sayin' that we aren't inclined to boot it all from the Dresden version and present the "think about authority" message in a different light. :)

Blogger Shreyas says:  

Interesting that you shoud call it 'white noise'. As I read it, it was constantly making me upset at the everpresent GM oppression.

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