1920s Pulp

As noted last week, Spirit of the Century was the first iteration of FATE 3.0. In addition to a very nice printed edition (especially for an indie publisher without a lot of prior print experience), publication was followed shortly be a full, OGL-compliant version of the system, free online. Shortly after that, the Evil Hat Wiki began including variant rules sets. As mentioned in the introduction, this would lead to the system getting used and modified in games from other publishers, such as Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora. All of these playtested additions would be considered for inclusion in Dresden Files.

But what about the original Spirit of the Century rules? What did they do right out of the box, and what could use some tweaking (hopefully incorporated by Dresden Files)?

Bias and Experience

I got my copy of Spirit of the Century as a preorder, and have been taking pieces of it as inspiration for other games ever since. My experience on the player’s side of the GM screen is limited to one short con game. I ran several long sessions of the game as a GM last year. Suffice it to say that my play experience isn’t as thorough as I would like, but is more than sufficient to test of the system in a variety of ways (especially since the sessions I ran were deliberately varied to try out different system aspects).

Part of the issue is that pulp isn’t truly in my comfort zone as a GM or player; I lack sufficient historical knowledge of the 20s to really feel comfortable riffing. A large part of the reason I only ran for around half a dozen sessions is simply the difficulty of doing enough research for every session to feel like I was doing the setting justice. Functionally, that meant, for me, that a book advertised as a “pick up” game wound up being more work than I had expected. I can’t fault the system for that at all, and the book even includes some very helpful GM advice for setting up games that significantly eased my load (though I can’t technically praise the mound of GM advice as a virtue of the system, as it’s all very system-agnostic; but it is, IMO, worth the price of the book and not included in the provided System Reference Document).

Despite my need to put more work into running a game than seems intended (and, most likely, because of it), I feel comfortable discussing how the system plays. However, as one final caveat, my preferences (and the preferences of most of my players) tend towards the toolkit rather than the designer styles of play. Some of the rules I’m not fond of may play far better in an “author stance” than in a “player stance” (as I believe the parlance goes).

Fate Points, Aspects, and Refresh

As I discussed last week, the core of the FATE system is, unsurprisingly, Fate Points. These are a variation on what is becoming increasingly common: Inspiration (from Adventure!), Drama Points (from Cinematic Unisystem), Plot Points (from Cortex), and even Action Points (from d20). Functionally, they’re an out-of-game mechanic representing all the fortune, inner strength, and dramatic power that would normally be given to a hero out of authorial fiat in a novel or movie.

Without any Aspects in play, Fate points may be spent to gain a small bonus after rolling (+1), insert a favorable coincidence into the narrative (make a declaration), or (in the most blurry situation between in-game and out-of-game-resource) power certain potent special abilities (stunts). In practice, Fate points rarely get used for these effects, because their use through Aspects is so much more potent.

An Aspect is, as discussed, the system’s replacement for attributes. Instead of a consistent, numerical bonus, characters have a list of (hopefully interesting) adjectives, nouns, and short phrases that define most of the character’s non-skill competence. Not only player characters have Aspects: NPCs and even locations have them as well. Most of the time, an Aspect is the X in “because of X, I can do Y:” they’re justifications for the character doing better than skill and luck would indicate.

Aspects are generally powered by Fate points: they don’t do anything beyond giving the GM a rough idea of what might interest a character unless a Fate point is expended through the Aspect (Invoking it if it’s on the character’s sheet, Tagging it if it’s anywhere else). Characters that use an Aspect in this manner may choose between a bigger bonus to a roll (+2), rerolling entirely (statistically less useful than the +2 unless you rolled really low), or making a declaration with more narrative “oomph” (e.g., it’s much easier to justify the coincidence of being armed with an aspect like “I always have a gun”).

In addition to their positive uses, Aspects are subject to “compels:” the GM offers the player extra Fate points to do something counterproductive but in keeping with the character’s background. A character with “Solace in a bottle” might be drunk at the worst possible moment, another with “I can take ’em” might start up a fight scene when talking is wiser, and one with “Hey, that’s my sister!” might abandon a fight to save an important NPC. Compels are designed to reward the player for making the game more interesting with the character’s flaws and are pretty much the only way to recover Fate points spent during a session.

I’m a huge fan of Aspects. Ever since FATE 2.0, I’ve been house ruling some variation of them onto every game I run where I think I can get away with it. They’re simply a highly effective way of encouraging roleplay: the player is more effective when pursuing the character’s personal strengths, and the player gets rewarded by playing up the character’s flaws. They’re easy to add to a game and tend to improve it in ways that simply adding a generic hero point mechanic doesn’t.

That said, their implementation in Spirit of the Century has a few flaws:

  • At its core, the biggest problem is that players simply have too many Aspects. SotC characters get ten of them. Players have enough room to tailor at least one Aspect to count for virtually any situation the character might willingly undertake. It’s easy to make an Aspect that will almost always be relevant for any of the character’s good skills, include a couple of Aspects useful in a variety of conflict situations, and still have a couple of Aspects to spare. Meanwhile, this many Aspects means that it’s almost impossible for a GM to really keep track of them all. In a group of four players, the GM has 40 situations that can be Compelled.
  • This flows directly into the second problem, which is the flow of Fate points at the table. SotC characters have a Refresh of 10: they start each session with ten Fate points (more if they saved up during the last session). Meanwhile, it can be terrifically hard to keep track of what can be Compelled, and game advice is that Compels shouldn’t be easy choices (the character should actually suffer a decent bit from accepting a Compel). In my game, this resulted in a really disastrous pattern of Fate point usage. In the first session, the players saw this huge stack of tokens and started spending them freely on rolls that they found interesting (as they should have). But the points didn’t come back as fast as they’d expected (due to my difficulty remembering to Compel in the middle of running a game, and trying to keep some constraints on keeping player-suggested Compels from having no teeth). So they started hording them in later sessions, afraid to use them early in the session for fear of running out, then each having at least half a dozen left to trivialize the climax of the session.
  • The third problem (a distant third) is simply the assumption that all locations and NPCs have Aspects as well. Perhaps I’m not as good at running by the seat of my pants as I like to think, but coming up with interesting and relevant Aspects for everything in the world on the fly wound up being pretty challenging. So using them correctly wound up intensifying my prep work for each session. And, having done this work, it made locations and NPCs less disposable, so it was a constant effort to avoid railroading my players to make sure they got use out of them. The sad thing was, due to problems one and two, the players almost never tried to use Aspects on locations and NPCs (unless the Tag was free): they didn’t spend Fate points freely, and, when they did, they likely had relevant personal Aspects.

Long story short: Aspects and Fate points are an amazing mechanic, but SotC hands out too many up front and makes it too hard to use them as intended during the game. Perhaps a lot of my problem had to do with running for five or six players and trying to cram a whole adventure into an afternoon session, but I think these problems would simply be reduced, not fixed, by more breathing room during a session (fewer players and less impetus to hustle).

When they work, they work beautifully, but SotC’s implementation of Aspects and Fate points generates a lot of headaches for the GM.

Part 3