Overview: Strange Tales of the Century

Strange Tales of the Century: coverMy 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.

The Author

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. Continue reading “Overview: Strange Tales of the Century”

Fate, Difference, and Advantages

Fudge or Fate dice

In which I spill some more thoughts about the Fate roleplaying system, in line with recent ones and still thinking about game mechanics as I write the War of Ashes RPG, but applicable to all Fate games.

I’ve been saying that among the four types of actions used in Fate Core and in Fate Accelerated, “Create an Advantage” is the key one.1  I want to take a few minutes to think about the mechanical reasons for the necessity and effectiveness of what may appear once again as “just” a narrative issue.

The Mathematics of Success

A very smart friend of mine who posts under the handle “theletteromega” has been writing on probability, statistics and game mechanics in roleplaying games for a few years now, discussing a variety of systems.  If you like to understand how things work, I’d like to point you to his articles on variance and game design, variance in Spirit of the Century, combat in Fate 2.0, combat in The Dresden Files RPG and other Fate-derived systems, and the use of fate points to counter the difference in skill level.

For now I will merely give you a digest:  Continue reading “Fate, Difference, and Advantages”

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.