All right. I’ve finished a more in depth read of the Shadow of the Century playtest. My 80’s playlist is cranked to the max, I’ve got a can of Jolt (who else remembers Jolt?), and I’m ready to rock. It’s time for a longer review of this crazy awesome game.
TL;DR Version: Another amazing take on Fate, this time using Roles (which are like Modes). A true and glorious love letter to the 80’s action genre. In my opinion, probably the best take on Fate yet.
Still with me? Rad. Nice to see not all of us have killed our attention spans (insert your own stereotypical millenial joke here). Strap yourself in, because this is gonna be pretty stream of consciousness, as I’m still riding a big wave of enthusiasm. In order to give some structure here, I’ll break it down by chapter and subject.
Bear with me here, as I’m a print designer and I tend to nerd out over stuff like this. But I have to state that this is the prettiest and easiest to reference playtest document I have ever read. While there isn’t any interior art, all of the layout has been finished already, which makes it look like an actual book. (Oh, nice! I Melt With You by Modern English just popped up!) The typeface choice is very nice, with Good Times for the chapter subjects, Gotham for headers, and good old garamond pro for the body text. It’s clean, easy to read, and the purple is spot on. Great work, currently uncredited layout guy! I can’t wait to see this thing with art. It’s damn slick.
Welcome to the Shadow of the Century
The first two pages are actually mostly playtest directions. I mention it only because it’s helpful and you don’t see this all the time.
Chapter 1: The World of Shadow
Though this chapter is only 6 pages, it packs in a whole lot of information. It gives you a grand overview of the setting and the current situation. This chapter gives you just enough information to understand the references coming later in the text, but not so much you get board. It also serves as just a killer primer for your players. It doesn’t reveal any great plot secrets, but it does give you the view from the ground. And I have to say, it takes a bit of courage to start the chapter with “The Centurions are dead. Long live the Centurions.”
It’s clear from the outset that this isn’t just Spirit of the Century 2.0. This is a game that can stand on its own, while still being set in the same world of Spirit of the Century. To be honest, you don’t often see this from other game publishers. It’s nice.
Chapter 2: Playing Shadow of the Century
The mechanical meat and bones of the game. Like other games, it’s built on the bones of Fate Core. But it makes changes that I feel are for the better. In fact, I think this has become my favorite version of FATE to date. But before I get into that, let’s talk about the Pitch Session.
Anyone who played the Dresden Files RPG should be familiar with the concept of communal setting creation. The Pitch Session is a bit like that, but focusing more on NPCs and less on a city. Basically, during your first session the players start creating the basics of their characters, and then everyone takes turns creating names and facts about NPCs. You also decide on the Issues (special long running aspects) of the game. The end result is that all of the players have a huge amount of input about what they’d like to see out of the game and who they want to see pop up. Of course the GM has a lot of room for secrets and to make up his own stuff, but he’s not creating things in a vacuum. As I’ve aged, it’s a style of play I’ve begun to enjoy more and more. And let me tell you, it makes the job of being GM so much easier. You know that your players are going to be invested, as they suggested what they wanted to see. And you start with a bunch of NPCs you can use. And the players feel invested because they had a hand in things. It’s a win-win-win situation.
There’s also one more thing you and the players have to decide: what level on the Gonzometer you’re on. You see, Dr. Methuselah has been doing hinky things to the timeline and it’s really jacked up reality. The higher up on this meter you go, the more weird things start happening. I’ll note that the default setting is called Big Trouble. But don’t worry, the check is in the mail.
Now, for the nitty-gritty mechanics stuff. Here’s a short overview of how this version works.
- Each character selects 3 Roles (Brain, Brawler, Cop, Detective, Dilettante, Face, Hacker, Inventor, Leader, Ninja, Saboteur, Soldier, Spy, Thief, Warrior, Wheelman). Each role gives you 4 skills, which start at Average (+1). Like in Atomic Robo, if your roles double up on skills, they get moved up the ladder.
- Each player then gets a number of skill points determined by the Gonzometer. You can use points on a one for one basis to increase skills. Gone is the ladder!
- You start with 3 stunts as normal, but select stunts based on your Role, not your skills. You can make your own, but the stunts in the book are more than sufficient to make just about any 80’s hero I could think of doing.
- You guys remember Weird modes from Atomic Robo? Well, they’re back, only they’re called Gonzo Roles. Like in Atomic Robo, you get to name it select 4 skills. But that’s not the end of it. You also get a Gonzo stunt, which is about as powerful as 2 stunts and can do more. Even better, you have permission to use your skills in really weird ways. Like if you had the mode of 6 Million Dollar Man, your Athletics could let you lift really heavy things, your Awareness would give you cool sensors. Basically you get permission to use your skills in special ways, at least for the narrative. Mechanically they’re pretty much identical to normal skills, just with a few extra uses. Of course this power costs you a refresh, but it’s way cool.
- One really nice change I liked – your stress tracks are based on the Gonzometer and which rolls have any of 3 different skills. Which means that it’s way easier to get a larger stress track. And if all three roles have one of those skills? Boom, bonus minor consequence!
- Oh, the skill list is different. Some skills got combined, they added Computers, and a few got renamed. It’s not really going to surprise anyone, but it does set a nice tone. One thing I liked is that Notice and Investigation got smashed into Awareness, a change I like.
The chapter is then rounded out with a lot of example characters, including several with Gonzo roles. Homages abound, but they’re either subtle or tweaks. Except Teenaged Werewolf. That one was pretty blatant (and way awesome). I mean he has a stunt called Hungry Like the Wolf! Totally rad.
Chapter 3: Player Options
This chapter goes over the various milestones. Changes have been made, but they’re not really all that different than the default one. The only big change is that they provide different milestones for Movies (short games) and Series (long games). A nice change, I thought. But again, nothing totally revolutionary. Just a few small tweaks for the better. I actually feel that you could crib the milestones from Shadow for a regular game without any trouble.
The big thing I loved, though, are Montages. You remember how in every episode of the A-Team you got this awesome musical montage of the group souping up their van or turning some soup kitchen into an armory? Well, now you have some actual spiffy rules to do that! There are basically two types of Montages: Synergy and Training. Synergy montages let the group establish some aspect and then they pick some skills. If they do well, they get bonuses to use those skills in the scene they trigger the montage aspect. And even when it’s over, everyone gets a boost! Training montages let the group train one person to do some special task alone. This version pretty much lets the group lend some of their skill to the person their training. If Synergy montages are the A-Team, Training montages are the Karate Kid.
Now, the thing I really love about montages: the more consequences the party has, the more you can use the montage aspect! In fact, you can’t even start one unless there’s a consequence on the team. I love this aspect (hah!) of montages, as it’s just so action hero it hurts. If the group takes a huge beating early on, the montage aspect will be more powerful and they’ll be able to come back. It’s not something I’d thought about, but now that it’s presented it seems so darn obvious.
Out of everything, Montages are probably about my favorite new concept in this game. And the best thing is that they’d be super easy to port over to every other version of Fate (except maybe Accelerated: the lack of many skills would be trouble). Just really, really cool.
Chapter 4: Being the Game Master
This chapter has all of that great GM advice you’ve come to expect from Evil Hat. It starts with a really nice section on how the 80’s were different. I grew up then and I still had a few moments going “oh, yeah, that was totally how it was!” You’d think that I would have felt that such a section was unnecessary, but it so totally isn’t. And for anyone born in the 90’s or later, it’s a really good primer on how some of us more “experienced” folks used to live. I still have vivid memories of our neon orange rotary phone and I think my old Walkman (okay, it was a knockoff!) is around somewhere. The overview was great and it even has sections on how to put the advice into action at the table and how to twist it into a shadow corruption. Just a bunch of really, really solid advice.
This section also has advice on “Going Gonzo.” It goes over the Gonzometer and VHS (Variable Hyperdimensional Simultaneity). In short, you get to learn how weird (or not weird) you can make your games. And it all ties into the metaplot.
This is then followed by information on how to make Shadows, the dark centurions. Shadows are built sort of like PCs, only they just have their own bad guy specific Roles. They never default to +0, either. It makes ’em pretty potent! You also get rules for Villainous Organizations, which are also worked up like characters. But instead of Roles, the organizations have Agendas and Moves. Both Shadows and Organizations are clearly explained and should be really easy to use in game. They’re just a great example of the Fate Fractal.
The chapter is rounded out with rules on Mooks, Mobs, Lieutenants, and your other various NPCs. You also get a few nice Adventure Seeds, in case you’re having a little trouble coming up with an adventure idea. They’re all pretty spiffy and should be enough to spark some ideas. To be honest, I actually hope the finished product either has more of them or we get a cool plot generator.
Chapter 5: Campaign Frames
This chapter has three setups for a campaign. Each one gives you a Setup, a few Characters you can start playing, a series issue, a few possible season issues, and your villains and foils. They’re basically the bare bones of entire campaign, complete with your pre-generated characters. And the homages to the 80’s are very, very thick in this section. We get some loving tributes to the A-Team, Buckaroo Banzai, and Jem and the Holograms (Truly Outrageous!). Of course the game puts a unique spin on each of them, but I couldn’t help but smile at each one. Of the three, I think the Anna and the Kareninas (the Jem homage) was the most interesting. Mostly because it’s like Jem and the Holograms meets Leverage meets Sabrina the Teenaged Witch. It, uh, makes more sense when you read it.
Chapter 6: The Greater Universe
For lack of a better word, this is the game “setting.” And it’s pretty darn extensive. It’s almost 50 pages long, and jam packed with both the history of the setting and the big players and shakers. It’s all well written, interesting, and totally fitting the setting. You get some information on the good guys, the bad guys, and stuff in-between. It’s all creative stuff and well worth reading. I know that I’m pretty excited to use at least a couple of the villainous organizations in my game. Nothing here is really forced down your throat, but I can see some folks ignoring some of this chapter if it doesn’t fit the vision of the game they want. I know that I, personally, didn’t really dig the Kroll’X (shapeshifting bug alien invaders) all that much. But they’re pretty easy to ignore, so it’s all good. Let’s just say that Magnum P.I. never had to deal with alien invaders.
Alien invaders and Dr. Methuselah aside, most of the stuff in the chapter is grounded and just feels so very, very 80s. Like everything else in this book, it just rings true to the decade. The chapter is rounded out by a short timeline, which is useful if you’re like me and didn’t really pay too much attention to world history in school. Well, and you also get to know when the weird stuff happened.
What can I say? Like your favorite 80’s song suddenly popping up on your Pandora list, this game just scratches that itch you didn’t know you have. It’s just about pitch perfect at what it does. And what it does is emulate 80’s action. The rules are great, the setting is compelling, and the advice is good. to be honest, it doesn’t even really feel like a playtest. It feels like an advance copy. Of course my group hasn’t had the chance to really bust it out and give it a good stress test, but from an armchair reading it looks great.
As a closing thought, I think I’ve finally found the version of FATE that’s the perfect hack for Shadowrun. After all, Shadowrun was born in the 80s as well and totally has that ascetic. And the Gonzo Roles totally give me just enough rules for Magic and Technomancers. Which, to me, just makes me love this game all the more.