First encounter with SotC brings back memories

On Monday night I finally got my first introduction to Evil Hat Productions’ game Spirit of the Century. There were six players: John R., Aaron, Brian J., the other Brian, Edmund, and I, and the GM was Peter. As usual, a really fun group (and it’s great that we’re getting a bunch of new people!) Mark dropped by after work to listen in for a while, but didn’t play because he was too tired. Peter had printed very nice booklets of the important rules from the SRD free rules, character sheets, and cheat sheets.

We had done the first three steps of character creation online, and finished by creating the “novels” at the table. This portion of the game is enjoyable enough, but time-consuming (and noisy), which is a bit of a problem for our Monday night games that can only run from 6:30pm to 10pm. It was almost 9pm by the time we were done with character creation, and only because we hurried a bit. This is more suited to a mini-series or campaign, where it would be quite reasonable to spend an entire session solely on character creation. The book contains tips for “pickup games” that would probably have helped, but with everything else going on I didn’t get a chance to read them in detail. I don’t know if anyone else in the group did.

Our characters included:

* Konrad Becker, all-American action tinkerer (Brian)
* The Incredible Indelible Professor Thaddeus Hendershot, genius scientist (Brian J.)
* Ngo Dinh Dien Jean Baptiste “The Crusader”, Man of Mystery (Edmund)
* Brother Birkshot Clemensun, Ordo Malleus secret agent kicking ass for the Lord (Aaron)
* Danny Dugan, ace pilot (John R.)
* Andromeda Brixton, woman of a thousand faces (me)

So we had a little less than an hour and a half to get familiar with the system and run through a little skirmish (I did get to clobber a thief with my parasol). Summary: We started in media res in pursuit of a thief who had stolen a precious object from the Century Club premises in Washington, D.C. Most of the group ran after the thief through the zoo (including the polar bears’ cage), but I opted to immobilize another suspicious character. After catching both men, we discovered that they were two different thieves trying to steal four (or five) rare jewels: the Eye of the Jaguar, a brooch or clasp stolen from the Century Club, which we recovered; the Fangs of the Jaguar, a pair of earrings stolen from a rich lady at a nearby party, which we returned, and the Heart of the Jaguar, location unknown.

Naturally, this is a little short to have definitive comments on the system. What really struck me about it — and Edmund shared my impression — is how similar to Theatrix it was. In fact, except for the (enjoyable) flourishes in the process of character creation, it looked almost exactly like playing Theatrix with Fudge dice. Although Theatrix was intended as a diceless game where success was decided by the needs of the story, the dramatic value, and comparison of scores, it also came with an optional dice-rolling system. Fudge dice hadn’t been invented yet, but if you used them to add to skill scores, what you’d get would almost exactly be SotC.

Theatrix was one of my great loves. Back in 1993, it was the first game I ever played that made story so prominent and important, rather than world-exploration, character levelling, wealth accumulation, or tactical combat. Sure, I had played games that had a bit more story to them, but this was the first that brought it front and centre. In addition, I had the chance to play several demos with the authors of the game, and all of them ran awfully fun events. Later on, I used Theatrix to give a little more structure to Castle Falkenstein and was happy with the result, even though I didn’t run it very many times.

Nowadays, I look back fondly but see some warts. In retrospect, there were a few too many levers, pulleys, dials and controls to really let the story flow. In environmental engineering geek terms, we restored the river to a more free-flowing condition, but had to keep several engineered controls such as flood gates, levees, and armoured banks, while I aspired to free-flowing meanders, backwater pools and wetlands. (Yes, that’s how my brain works!)

At first glance, I get the same feeling from SotC: likable system, laudable effort, probably works very well for people who are more comfortable with “engineered controls”, especially if this is their first foray into story-based games coming from a “traditional” RPG background. And I look forward to really giving it a test drive; but ultimately, it’s probably too clunky for someone like me and many of the people I regularly game with. Looking at my character sheet, I knew in advance that I would forget to use two-thirds of this stuff most of the time. With six people, we had 60 Aspects to track at the table! This makes me suspect that the game probably works best with four players or so. Still, 40 Aspects would be a handful anyway.

So I did find it to be a charming walk down Memory Lane, and I really want to play again, but it’s probably not going to hit my sweet spot in the long term.

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