My replacement Kindle has arrived so I picked up my e-reading list where I had left it off, which included Jess Nevins’ Strange Tales of the Century (Evil Hat Productions). This book is just stunning; I suspect the reason we have heard so little about it is that it’s overwhelming with goodness.
As publisher Fred Hicks described during the Fate Core Kickstarter funding campaign when STotC became a stretch goal, what was planned to be a 60,000- to 70,000-word resource turned into a 200,000-word tome! The sheer amount of material is staggering and even intimidating when it’s time to review the book.
Author Jess Nevins is both an über geek by inclination (I say this with a sense of fellowship!) and a research librarian by profession, so he collects amazing stacks of fascinating resources which he shares generously. I first became acquainted with him and his work when he was creating lavish annotations to comic book series I was fond of, like Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s Top Ten, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc. Jess would research the rich subtext and allusions, and share his notes online. When he first started publishing some of this material in book form, I was delighted that more people would get access to his clever work.
With his long-standing love of pulp and encyclopedic knowledge of the vintage years of the genre, he has written many fascinating articles on the hidden treasures of the genre, dispelling some of the clichés we have come to associate with pulp literature—particularly the notion that pulp lacked diversity. So Jess was the perfect person to write Strange Tales of the Century for Evil Hat, a resource book to expand the scope of their best-seller game Spirit of the Century.
Strange Tales of the Century is a brick, at 520 pages. As I understand it, the book was too massive to publish but too good to cut down. The project had been on the back-burner for a while because of its massive scale, but was revived as a new stretch goal when the Fate Core Kickstarter campaign went bonkers. As a result, all KS backers received the electronic version of the book (PDF, ePub and mobi) as part of their rewards, which is just another stunning freebie from a campaign that generated insane freebies.
As an aside, I think Fate fans and KS backers are probably suffering from sensory overload, or at least an embarrassment of riches, because we have received not only the Face Core, Fate Accelerated, and Fate System Toolkit books, but also the two wonderful Worlds of Fate volumes, the Fate Freeport Companion, the Deck of Fate PDF, the young adult novel Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate (I’m reading this right now), the Fate version of Day After Ragnarok, and of course Strange Tales of the Century, many of which have received too little buzz given how excellent they are.
So what is Strange Tales of the Century, exactly? It’s not a game in its own right; instead, it’s a supplement that provides extensive material modelled after real pulp stories which can serve as source or expansion material to provide more options for Spirit of the Century, to move the storyline and setting all the way to the early 1950s, to support more variety in character templates, stunts, and plots, to help bridge the space between Spirit of the Century and the upcoming Shadow of the Century, and to help with conversion between Spirit of the Century and Fate Core. That’s a lot of things to do!
Frankly, this monster could have comfortably been split into three books, and I suppose if we were still in the SotC craze around 2006, that would have been commercially viable. Since it’s 2014, we’ll just have to bear the burden of receiving a staggering amount of free (for Fate Core backers) or durn cheap (for others) material of high quality in one giant book.
The contents include the following components:
- A brief introduction to publications of the Pulp Era, squarely addressing the triple issue of sexism, racism, and imperialism.
- “Strange Tales of the Century Magazine”, a section that tells the tales of the Centurions (canon characters from Spirit of the Century), and associates, allies, and opponents of the Century Club as they might have been published in a fictitious from 1935 to 1951.
- “1935-1951: Fifteen Years to Get from Gold to Atomics”—overviews of the world in 1935 and in 1951, a gazetteer exploring the globe during this era, and a comprehensive discussion of pulp technology and gadgets of the period.
- “Strange Heroes of the Century”—a vast list of additional templates or archetypes to use with Spirit of the Century.
- “New Stunts”—Self-explanatory. A hefty list of new stunts, including superhuman stunts in the vein of, say, Doc Savage.
- “SotC, STotC, and Fate Core”—An appendix which I assume was one of the additions following the Fate Core Kickstarter stretch goals, which provides comprehensive conversion support to move between the various incarnations of the Fate system as needed.
- A useful bibliography arranged by character archetype, suggesting handy reading to get the original pulp flavour behind the characters; and a detailed index.
I heartily approve of the open efforts to provide more diversity of gender, origin, race, ethnicity, etc. by using examples actually found in Pulp Era material. This provides something that is sorely needed in modern gaming in general while dispelling our hasty notions about what pulp fiction was really like in the early 20th century. STotC gives us lots of sample heroes (and adversaries) that aren’t WASP males and provides the sources to back this up. Of course, this will be no surprise at all for long-time readers of Jess Nevins’ fascinating articles on Pulp Era stories.
Time for another parenthesis! After Spirit of the Century was published in 2006, it was touched by a more general argument in the role-playing community, and particularly in the indie/hippie/story game community. The discussion was about the need for more inclusive authorship, fiction, and art in games; essentially, women, persons of colour, and generally people who weren’t young white men were saying: “I don’t feel included, I don’t see anyone who resembles me.”
SotC was only one of many games mentioned and not by far the worst offender; on the contrary, the point made was “Even SotC, which does so well compared to other games, actually falls far short of what we need.” However, SotC was also blessed/cursed with very enthusiastic fans who responded, in a nutshell, with “There is no problem with SotC, the problem is with you.”
That is never a good answer, and the faster it flies, the more inadequate it is. It can’t have been fun for the Evil Hat Team to find themselves sitting in the middle of the skirmish after (A) having tried to do right in the first place, and (B) getting backlash thanks largely to fans’ knee-jerk reactions, not the company’s. I can’t blame them if they felt a little defensive at the time. But however stung they may have felt at first, they did the intelligent thing: they thought about the points brought up and looked to see whether they could improve.
Since then, I’ve seen considerable effort on Evil Hat’s part to tackle the need to reflect a more diverse world. They’ve hired women and persons of colour to write, edit, manage, and provide art; they have carefully selected art to show the game worlds they want to build; they have instituted policies on what they want to see in the writing; and they have openly addressed the matter in their products and in their communications.
From everything I’ve seen, the Evil Hat team understands that (A) the real world is more diverse than what is shown in North American fiction; (B) it’s hard to get more people interested in the hobby if it looks like it does not include them in the first place. Can further progress be made? Always! But props for trying honestly and energetically.
Maybe I’m just thick-skulled but I found one thing somewhat disorienting about the book: the fact that although it is based on real-life Pulp Era stories, the fiction contained in the book is all new and presented as excerpts of an imaginary magazine called Strange Tales of the Century.
This conceit allows the presentation of the Century Club members’ further adventures as if they really had sprung from the pages of a pulp magazine; but because I’m used to seeing Jess Nevins’ reviews and analyses of actual fiction of bygone eras, I kept being confused as to whether these tales had really been published decades ago.
It’s not a big deal, it just gave me a case of Hall of Mirrors vertigo, American Splendor-style. It might not have been a bad idea to have the distinction between Strange Tales of the Century, the fictitious magazine of the same name, and actual Pulp Era publications clearly spelled out in the introduction or in the opening of Chapter One.
Pulpy! The chapter heads by Dave Flora are excellent, and the rest of the art by Arthur Asa, Jacob Walker, Joel Biske, Steve Bryant, Leah Huete, Jayna Pavlin, Tazio Bettin, and Robin Eng varies from OK to really good. Unfortunately, most of the latter did not sign their pieces
so I don’t know who to thank, but I will leave you with one [edit: by Robin Eng] that tickled my love of uplifted cetaceans. If the author wants to step forward so I can credit properly, that would be great!
Image by Robin Eng, from Strange Tales of the Century (Evil Hat Productions, 2013). Used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.