My Monday night group have just started playing Spirit of the Century, a free-wheeling pulp role-playing game based on the Fate system. We’re managing to take our time on character creation (three sessions and counting so far), but as we’re really enjoying it, the system’s looking good, and I’m really chuffed about the characters we’re coming up with, I thought I’d do a write up of where we are now, covering both the characters and what I’ve thus far learned of the system.

First off, the basics. It’s a pulp game set in 1925. You create your character in a series of five phases, which collectively cover the period of your life from your birth (for setting related reasons, all SotC characters were born on 1st January 1901) up to the start of play.

This is what I came up with for the first phase of “Lord Edward Silver”:

PHASE ONE (BACKGROUND)

Events: Lord Edward grew up the privileged second son of the Duke of Buckinghamshire. After his elder brother was killed in the Great War he became the heir, to his father’s obvious disappointment.

First Aspect: Old Money

Second Aspect: Old School Tie

So he’s an English aristocrat, who from his childhood has acquired the aspects Old Money and Old School Tie (i.e. his family are wealthy, with that wealth being established at least several generations ago, and he went to a prestigious and exclusive school which grants him membership of a mutually beneficial social network).

I should perhaps explain how aspects work, as they’re pretty much at the heart of the Fate system. Aspects can be almost anything: a person you know, a thing you have, a background you’ve come from, something you are, something you do. Although the rulebook does suggest aspects, there is no set list. You simply make them up.

Now I’ve come across these sorts of “make up your own skills/attributes/whatevers” systems before but have always been distrustful of them. It all seemed too woolly. After all, what’s to stop someone coming up with an attribute called “Brilliant At Everything”?

But Fate does it differently, because in a stroke of sheer genius, aspects are intimately bound up with what in other games would be called hero points (but are here called fate points).

It’s probably best explained with an example. Firstly, imagine I’m playing a generic game in a system that has hero points, where spending a hero point allows you to either roll again or add +2 to a roll you’ve just made:

GM: Okay, the customs agent doesn’t appear to be buying your explanation that your 200 packets of cigarettes are for personal use.

Me: I’ll try and strike up a rapport with him.

GM: Okay, roll against your Rapport skill.

Me: [Rolls] Three?

GM: He’s still not buying it.

Me: I’ll spend a hero point to push it to five. Enough?

GM: Yeah. He smiles, shrugs and then waves you on.

Now let’s look at how it might play out in Fate, where you can also spend a fate point to allow you to either roll again or add +2 to a roll you’ve just made – but only if you can justify it using one of your aspects:

GM: Okay, the customs agent doesn’t appear to be buying your explanation that your 200 packets of cigarettes are for personal use.

Me: I’ll try and strike up a rapport with him.

GM: Okay, roll against your Rapport skill.

Me: [Rolls] Three?

GM: He’s still not buying it.

Me: [pushing a fate point token across the table] He wouldn’t by any chance have gone to the same school as me, would he? You know, Old School Tie and all that?

GM: Well as it happens, he is looking at you with narrowed eyes. “Weren’t you in Rochester house, a couple of forms above me?” he asks.

Me: I’ll make a bit of small-talk with him and push the roll to five. Enough?

GM: Yeah. He smiles, shrugs and then waves you on.

So far from aspects being something which makes the game woolly, they instead take something woolly (hero points) and give them substance and add some roleplaying to them.

Another key part of aspects is that as well as using them to spend fate points, they’re the way in which you gain/regain fate points. The best aspects offer both advantages and disadvantages, because when they work against you, you get fate points back. Take cowardice for example:

  • If you need to get away from something, you could use cowardice to spend a fate point and grant you +2 or a reroll.
  • But if there’s something you need and want to do which requires bravery, the GM might point out that your aspect compels you to run away. In this case you can either spend a fate point to avoid the compel (i.e. have your character overcome his cowardice) or instead accept the compel (and run away) and then get a fate point as a reward.

I then moved onto the next phase, which covers your early adulthood, in particular that Great War (WWI) and the period after it, and your introduction into an organisation called the Century Club, which is a key part of the setting.

PHASE TWO (THE GREAT WAR AND ENTRY INTO THE CLUB)

Your Patron In The Century Club: Sir Humphrey Peterford (Great-great-great-uncle – mother’s, father’s, father’s, uncle)

Lord Edward became a dashing pilot and motor racer, achieving fame through a series of epic flights and races and even more epic society gatherings, until he pushed his luck too far and was dashed to Earth by an unearthly storm. Finding him lying dying in a remote hospital, his mad scientist great-great-great-uncle knew that only the full body transplant he’d been spending the last fifty years developing could save his young protege.

No donor body was available, but there was a local zoo. That night, a male silverback gorilla was stolen. Lord Edward lived, but he was no longer the same Lord Edward. Where once had strode a suave, charming, debonair human being, there now shuffled a suave, charming, debonair… gorilla.

Sir Humphrey introduced him to the Century Club. They needed him, but he perhaps needed them more. After all, it was now the only club he could get into if he fancied a fine cigar, a single malt, and some intelligent conversation.

First Aspect: Bright Young Thing

Second Aspect: Body of a Gorilla

Yes. I’m now a gorilla. Who loves to party.

Bright Young Thing can be a good thing: I’m fun, entertaining and charming at parties and other high-class social occasions. And it can be a bad thing: I’m very easily distracted from what I should be doing if I find out there’s a party going on.

And Gorilla’s probably self-explanatory. It will get in the way with pretty much any interaction I might make with human society; but you could activate it for things like hitting people, intimidating people, breaking things, using your feet to do things, and just plain damn avoiding notice because people “never suspect it was the gorilla”. (We’ve even worked out that in many cases, if I simply stand motionless up against a wall, people will just assume that I’m a stuffed animal, some hunter has put there as a trophy).

Edward can talk by the way. It’s just that people often aren’t prepared to listen to a gorilla, no matter how cultured his accent.

I then moved onto the third phase, which is where you imagine a novel that your pulp character has already been the star of:

PHASE THREE (YOUR NOVEL)

Title of your Novel: Edward Silverback and the Black Baron of the Skies

Guest stars in your Novel: TBD and TDB

Events: Edward gatecrashes a New Year’s Eve fancy-dress party held on board Californian billionaire Roger Henderson’s dirigible (posing as someone wearing an awfully good gorilla costume). Among the guests are the British Ambassador to the United States, and the ambassador’s beautiful daughter, Georgina.

Just before midnight, as Edward is busily engaged charming Georgina, the dirigible is captured by a black-painted Zeppelin commanded by Lothar Von Richtofen (the Red Baron’s younger brother) who faked his own death in 1922, and now roams the skies seeking revenge for Germany’s WWI defeat.

The Baron’s stormtroopers capture all the guests save Edward and Georgina who get away. Helped by Georgina, Edward gradually captures the stormtroopers one by one and then rescues the guests. The Black Baron gets away in a biplane his Zeppelin carries, but turns back aiming to shoot down both airships (and thus eliminate all witnesses). Edward jumps into a second biplane, launches, and engages the Black Baron in combat. Edward’s plane is damaged, but he forces the Black Baron to flee.

First Aspect: Sworn Enemy of the Black Baron

Second Aspect: Georgina

The Black Baron was always going to get away. Having him as an aspect gives General Tangent (the GM) a good hook for future stories, and of course if he takes that hook (which he’s already planning on doing), I’ll be rewarded with fate points. We were brainstorming ideas last night and we were thinking that the Black Baron could have recruited a load of disaffected airship builders and designers (Germany was banned from building Zeppelins in the period immediately after WWI) and established a secret base in the mountains of Greenland, from where he can threaten both the United States and Western Europe.

A lot of planes used to crash around then. Maybe they weren’t all crashes…

Having Georgina as an aspect gives me a friend and ally who can help me negotiate a human-centric world. She can explain my presence by posing as my “owner”, with me as her “pet”. And of course, she is also someone who the GM can use as a hook, by putting her in danger.

WHAT’S LEFT TO DO?

Well firstly the guys need to write their “first novels”. So far they’ve come up with: a Chinese monk travelling the world looking for pieces of a powerful and cursed asteroid that fell to Earth hundreds of years ago (John); and a private detective who not only sees dead people but is frequently employed by them (TAFKAC).

Having done that, we move onto phases four and five, which is to take the “novels” of two other players (in our case, as there’s only three of us, we’ll all appear in all the novels) and write yourself into them as a guest star.

For my novel, we’re thinking that John’s Chinese monk, on the trail of a chess set constructed from a piece of the asteroid, could have got himself onto Roger Henderson’s dirigible by getting a job in the kitchen. Of course, he’ll then help me defeat the Black Baron’s stormtroopers.

I think doing the “novels” in this way is a really cool idea. (You don’t have to do them in as much detail as I’ve done by the way – they can just be one-liners). It gives the characters loads of background, gives the GM lots of hooks to work with, and makes sure that the characters start play being already friends and allies.

And then the final touch will be to give our characters skills. Not surprisingly, I’m going to have Pilot as my top skill and Drive as my second. That’s pretty well going to be my niche within the party, which could be interesting if we ever get stopped by the police who ask the two humans why they have a gorilla driving their car. (It might be a gorilla with the finest leather driving gloves, a nifty set of goggles, and a hand-made Saville Row suit, but I doubt that will cut much ice with Plod).

I can’t wait.

EDIT: ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Forgot to say that the genius idea of me going to a fancy-dress party disguised as a gorilla came from John, and it was TAFKAC who said I should do something with dirigibles.

Also, I think the inspiration for the talking Gorilla itself came from Tony Lee’s comic The Gloom.