Pondering a Spirit of the Century play-by-email game

Since we moved away from our friends and our regular gaming circle, I’ve been pondering running a play-by-email (PBeM) game since we don’t have a local circle and the RPGs pool here is shallow. It would also potentially give me a chance to play with my online pals I can never play with in person because they are too far; I intend to limit this game to people who are on my friends list — no general fishing for players on RPG.net. I considered several systems and settings.

1. System
Some of the key criteria are that the system must be simple enough to withstand being played at the snail’s pace of PBeM games; it must be accessible to the players without asking them to buy new books; it must be contained in a single source, not strewn about multiple splat books; and duh, its mechanics must inspire me. I have considered many, and some of the forerunners included Atlas Games’ Over the Edge and Atomic Sock Monkey Press’ PDQ (either in its Truth & Justice or Zorcerer of Zo incarnations).

Why am I now leaning Evil Hat Productions’ Spirit of the Century (SotC)? After all, it is way more complex than either of the other forerunners I mentioned (though not that complex in absolute terms), and I have little experience playing it — and none running it. Here are some of my incentives:

  1. I’ve been interested in exploring this game further since I first heard about it.
  2. Because of its efforts to tie to its written sources, it seems to me to lend itself pretty well to a text format.
  3. The System Resource Document (SRD) providing the core rules is available online, free.
  4. I believe it lends itself to a number of different settings.
  5. It strikes an interesting balance between GM and player authority.
  6. It’s very customizable, hackable, and adjustable to personal and group preferences.
  7. It already has a built-in fan base, which may help me find players.
  8. I already own the full version in both PDF and print format, making it easy for me to refer to the rules.

2. Setting
SotC is a pulp-inspired game which barely has any setting at all, though it does have some hooks. Besides, I just mentioned that one of its advantages is adaptability; for example, has used SotC to run a game set in Korea but based on ‘s Temeraire series, a Napoleonic era adventure fantasy where dragons are used as war machines.

Exactly what kind of story do I want to run? Right now, that the question I’m bouncing around. “Pulp” is a genre, not a setting. It can be stretched to cover a multitude of sins! Obviously, I can make up a setting of whole cloth, but that would mean more work for me. In addition, I find that a common setting can help orient players and provide more building blocks to work from. There’s a fine balance, different for every group, between too much pre-existing background and too little.

One option would be to use a background provided in some other game I own; it would allow me to use existing background information, adventures, characters, etc. A natural fit would be Exile Game Studio’s Hollow Earth Expedition, which is a fine pulp setting in its own right (it also has a quite decent system, just not the one I’m interested in exploring at this particular time.) It’s well written, interesting, and the art is very evocative. On the down side, my players might not have access to it, and I really don’t want to make anyone buy anything.

Another possibility is to use some of the sources cited as inspiration in creating SotC. For example, Warren Ellis’ Planetary, a comic book that had a very clear influence of the game. But do I want to cut my list of potential players to those of my friends who like comic books in general, and this one in particular? Also, I don’t have the encyclopaedic knowledge of pulp and comics that seems necessary.

Besides, I’m not sure I want to limit myself to adventure pulp; science fiction pulp seems appealing. I’m not necessarily talking about Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, the epitomes of pulp-era sci-fi. The SotC system lends itself to a lot more than that; just about any type of space opera would be possible. For example, someone once said — was it Vincent Baker? — that any role-playing system will be used by fans at some point to re-create Star Wars, itself a very pulp-inspired movie. SotC could certainly do this, though that’s not my intention. It does meet the test of wide recognition and not forcing any players to buy new source materials, but it doesn’t appeal to me at the moment.

But what of other science fiction universes that are widely available? I considered the Fading Suns setting because I own almost every book ever published and love the setting, but not the native system; but I’m not convinced that it would be as available, accessible, and appealing to potential players; nor am I convinced that the tone would be a good match for the very optimistic pulp flavour of SotC.

Another of the sci-fi settings I really like is that of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It definitely meets the accessibility criterion: all 14 television show episodes are available free on Warner Brothers and Hulu, and the background info is available on a number of fan sites. Again, however, SotC may be too optimistic in tone to really match the original.

The question of tone is not insurmountable. I mentioned that SotC is extremely adaptable; there are ways to adjust the opposition and the player characters’ default power level, for example, so that PCs are not so far superior to the average person on the streets of Byzantium Secundus or Persephone. Really, the question is more “What kind of stories do I feel like exploring right now?” (closely followed by “Will anyone else care?”) I would like something adventurous, and more on the sci-fi side, where player characters are heroic yet flawed, and players generate a lot of the material (ideas, setting, plots, characters, etc.) I’m still musing over the question.

I’m happy to entertain requests and suggestions.

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