Apr 302016

Previous Episodes:

I’m going to start this recap by stating that I’m ditching my usual in character with digression format. This entire post is more or less one big digression, as I felt that very little actually happened in the game. And frankly, I just need to work out what went wrong in my head. My apologies if that makes this less interesting, but it’s my hope that my rambling might be helpful to someone else.

To begin, it should be stated that due to time constraints, we had a shorter than normal play session yesterday. Which is usually fine, cutting out an hour can be done if I have a little time to think about it. But that’s in a normal session. But what happened in this session was far from normal. I’ve mentioned in past posts that my players were really getting into the show behind the game, providing meta commentary on what was happening in the game. Which was really interesting and I was willing to see where it went. Turns out, it went in places that really killed any sort of investment I had in the story I was trying to craft.

Things almost immediately got off to a rocky start. Due to missing last week, we sort of skipped the recap part of the game this session. Which was a mistake, as I had intended for this game to pick up right where it had left off. Instead I had one character in L.A., shooting a music video. Another character had magically jumped to a base and was working on his car. Suddenly I was dealing with a time skip, which I managed to do by having the mother and Molly stay over with Ace. Which worked, but it had killed my first idea, which was the mother was going to tell them that she’d barely gotten away from the commune as it was being attacked. It was my intention to start the session out with some higher stakes and a bang, just to build some excitement.

But players do things you don’t expect and I can hardly fault the players for wanting to explore their characters. Any GM who’s run long enough learns to roll with the punches, and a more low key start was fine. My players rolled with my really fumbled way to bring them together again (bless them for that – it was NOT my best work by far). And so the characters made their way to the surf commune to see what was happening. There was a token amount of investigation, but then the players went on what must have been a 20 minute side digression about the actors playing the characters, and how they went on to do other things in other shows. It was very creative and entertaining, but it once more killed any momentum I had at all.

I was able to sort of pull things back on track by having some Street Thunder thugs attack on motorcycles and RVs, machine guns and chains in hand. I hope that maybe threatening the folks of the commune and the characters would pull folks back in character, but instead the fight ended up being nothing but full on slapstick. There were attacks with weights that were just painted frisbees. When David’s car was attacked, it wasn’t actually his car, it was some beater they had to burn up. And so what I had hoped would ratchet up the tension instead turned into Monty Python and the Bumbling Gangers of Ineptitude.

Now, during this fight I did make an interesting discover. I started tossing out “DvD Commentary Aspects”, and the players really ran with it. Throwing a free weight at a guy was easy because it was actually a painted frisbee. The car wasn’t damaged because it wasn’t actually the real car – it was a stunt car. That part? That part is just a great example of the Fate Fractal in action. The show that was the game was suddenly taking on traits like an actual character. I actually think that you could very easily use the Fate Accelerated rules to stat the actual show up as a character. Just use approaches (or Roles) like Budget, Effects, Actors, Makeup, Crew, and so on. Then you could let the players as a whole use the show character to create advantages for the player characters. It’d be very meta, but it’d work seamlessly.

But, for this game, the commentary only served to kill any sort of tension I’d hope to build. This is the point where the game had jumped so far off the rails that I had kind of just given up. I tried to keep going, but my heart wasn’t really in it. The heroes were harassed by Drake Falconsteele and Detective Dan O. Lord, but then we got on another tangent about how those actors went on to other shows as well. I tried again to bring the game back by having an earthquake start, but even I was starting to describe things in terms of the show (the camera was shaken).

The earthquake opened up a crevasse that had some underground caves. During my prep and thought earlier in the week, this was supposed to be the magic moment (hah!) when the group first encountered something truly supernatural. But the mood for such a reveal just wasn’t any sort of right and instead I just got derailed. Instead of these terrible zombies rising out of the surf, remnants of a long sunken Spanish Galleon, the first thing that popped into my head was a big dragon. Which of course looked cool, as the prop guys were established as being great. But then I figured that was silly, so it ended up being an illusion. Which made no freaking sense. But I had looked at the clock and realized that time was running out due to all of the tangents, and so I had to cut that fight.

The heroes made it through the caverns and to a big chamber with lava. I hadn’t planned for lava at all. It was supposed to be a room quickly filling with sea water. But a player had established that they had some cool lava effects and declared a detail, so I rolled with it. And my big scary cultist who was supposed to be this big mystery about why he knew ace? It wasn’t him, it was some totally old stuntman who had also played three parts in the episode already. I tried insisting that he was in a robe and you couldn’t see him, but was kind of shouted down. And so I pretty much just threw the fight and let the heroes roll over it, as at that point I was just tired of playing along and knew there would be no tension at all.

I think that’s the moment that really broke me for this game. When things get this silly, there’s no coming back from it. You can’t have things get this weird and then try to pretend that this game is anything remotely resembling serious. And to be clear, I was complicit in some of the meta commentary. It was funny and it made me laugh. But it really wasn’t anything like what I had wanted to run when I started this game. I had envisioned a grounded, more low key game. I wanted something close to Simon & Simon or Magnum P.I. But what we ended up with was the Adventures of Bad Acting and Terrible Scripts. Which can be great fun once in a while, but it’s not remotely what holds me attention as a GM.

I am blessed with really damn good players. They’re attentive, they’re always willing to pitch in, and they have creative characters and ideas. You couldn’t ask for a better group of folks to play with. But all of those good qualities can also combine to create a runaway juggernaut of gaming that I can only try to guide. And I know had I actually talked about how this was bothering me earlier, the group would have immediately started to bring things back. But I was curious as to what these changes meant and I wanted to explore a new style game. Only to realize way too late that it’s a style of game that I only enjoy once in a while in a convention style setting. They’re great palette cleansers, but they don’t have enough on them to interest me for more than a session or two.

A big part of me wishes I would have stuck to my guns at the very beginning and insisted that we play the game at the Bad Dudes & Ladies level. I should have stated that I wanted grounded characters and that the Gonzometer was going to be very low. But the players tossed their enthusiasm behind the higher gonzo settings and it’s a foolish GM who ignores what makes his or her players enthusiastic. And so I ran with it, ultimately to the point of making myself uncomfortable and uninterested in the game. But that happens. The only way to figure out if you like something is to give it a good try. And for me, the more gonzo and meta style games just don’t have enough in them to interest me for very long.

I’m very grateful that my group agreed to take part in this playtest and did their best to throw their full attention and enthusiasm into this thing. I knew at least a few of my players were really struggling with Fate and I hope that this helped them understanding. And I really do like the original characters that came out of this game. I think, in another style of game, I’d really enjoy running for them again. It was a great game to visit, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

As a final word, the actual system itself is incredible. Shadow of the Century is now definitely in my top 3 variations of Fate and I’ll be grabbing extra copies of this one. Throughout this entire playtest we have very, very few mechanical problems. And those we did have were mostly related to legacy language that just hadn’t been changed in the playtest document. And even if you don’t dig the 80’s, this version of Fate has so much you can steal. Montages, Roles, the idea of “Gonzo Roles” adding extra trappings and effects to skills. I’m particularly interested in taking the final version of Shadow of the Century and tweaking it to run Shadowrun.

I’m grateful that Evil Hat allowed us to play in their under construction sandbox. It was just an awesome experience, even if I didn’t end up digging where the game ended up. And to be clear, any problems I have with this game were the result of situations, not the rules or the group itself. It just turns out that I don’t really like my games to get too meta or silly. But I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun finding out I didn’t enjoy something. So, thanks to the folks at Evil Hat for providing us with so much fun. This has been my favorite and best playtest experience to date.

Apr 172016

Previous Episodes:

  • The Pitch Session

The episode opens with a crowded concert venue in Honolulu, Hawaii. Vic Valiant is putting on a special concert this evening, and so the exterior is already packed with adoring fans. Inside the venue, we take a peek back stage. Behind closed doors, Scott Montgomery, AKA Vic Valiant, is talking chemistry with pop star Barbara Brooks, who is nowhere near as airheaded as her stage persona. Outside, we see an amazonian woman guarding the door, her arms crossed and her attitude stern. This is Dr. Rebecca Jones, noted wild animal veterinarian and a secret agent working with Phoenix Rescue. And like Vic Valiant, she holds a secret: Becca’s severe injuries were repaired using cutting edge bionics. She’s currently here as a favor to Barbara, her old college roommate.

Out in the coliseum floor, a sun bleached blond man wearing a Baja sweatshirt and huarache sandals is speaking with a confused concession manager. This is Ace, surfer, beach bum, and sometimes insightful detective. It seems that one of his friends said that he could get a gig working concessions, but this seems to be false. Just as Ace feels like he’s never going to earn enough money for beer this week, his intuition leads him over to the security manager, who is frustrated because two of his guys hadn’t shown up for work. Desperate, he turns to Ace and hires him to work backstage security. Which is how the bumbling bloodhound ended up guarding Vic Valiant’s door, right beside Becca.

Out in the ticket line, we see a handsome man having an argument with his fancy wrist watch. But unlike most people, David King’s watch can talk back. The feminine voice is pleading with David. For the A.I. K.A.T.T. would really like to see Vic Valiant in concert. And of course David bought tickets, right? When the chromed crusader answers in the negative, K.A.T.T. leads him to a brand new digital ticket terminal and has David plug in the watch. Suddenly two tickets pop out, and with a bit of sweet talking David manages to make his way inside for the concert.

+Digression: I’m what I think you’d call a lazy or “low preparation” GM. Most of the adventure this session was actually drummed up on my run earlier the same day. All I really had going into this adventure were the following notes:

  • The Russian strikes at Vic’s rock concert.
  • The attack is cover to kidnap the port authorities daughter.
  • Smugglers want to use dock 42 for something bad.
  • I need Ninjas and bombs.

Fortunately for me, I know 80’s action shows pretty well and I have a group of great players who are willing to go along with my ideas. But even so, I did compel each and every character to get them to the concert. As a Fate GM, I find that starting off the game with an easy compel creates a nice little fate point buffer for later down the line.

The lights in the stadium dimmed, the fog machines started up, and before long Vic Valiant and Barbara Brooks had hit the stage. They started right in on their first number, and for the first few songs it looked like this was going to be another smash performance. But then Vic heard a crackle in his earpiece, and the voice of his old nemesis whispered into his ear. “A shame this is going to be your last concert, Vic. For your sake, I hope you can dance lively! Proshchay navsegda.” Vic was able to spot the strangely glowing spotlight a little too late. One of the stage lights suddenly glowed a bright red and just as the light show started a deadly laser flashed toward Barbara! Vic only had time to hip check her out of the way, but he didn’t get away cleanly. The laser bored right through his keytar, shorting out all of the C keys!

+Digression: The keytar getting damaged is probably the best explanation for a stress hit I’ve ever seen in the game. I loved it.

Meanwhile, backstage, Becca suddenly became aware of a strange and rhythmic beeping sound. Her bionic ears started focusing and before long she was certain that it was coming from under the stage! The scent of explosive residue that Ace picked up only confirmed the thought. And so the two erstwhile security guards started tracking down the strangeness, which eventually led them to a trap door to underneath the stage. After a bit more searching, the two spotted the source of the disturbance – a massive bomb with a countdown timer right underneath the stage! Even worse, it was a good 15 feet above them! And the clock was quickly counting down!

Out in the crowd, the slightly bored David spotted a couple of big toughs in suits harassing a blue collar guy with a navy tattoo. Being driven to justice, David stepped over to try and defuse the situation. But this time his words fell on deaf ears, and before long he found himself tussling with a trio of thugs! His first swing didn’t do anything but annoy the mountain of criminal muscle. David knew that he was in for a rough fight!

+Digression: I’m going to admit right up front that I screwed up with the mooks in this session. I hadn’t really looked at what combat skills my characters had, and so I was tossing Good (+3) quality mooks and mobs at a group who had only Average (+1) or Fair (+2) fight. And to compound the problem, David King’s player couldn’t roll anything remotely good on his dice most of the night. His luck improved a bit when I loaned him my hot pink fate dice, but even then he was getting a lot of -2 and -3 results. But the big problem was that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the characters and wasn’t giving them an appropriate challenge. Fortunately my players were creative and found other ways around things, and I quickly dialed back the mook qualities or gave them really obvious troubles on the fly.

This is also the point where I did something I really liked. Once I had introduced each of the characters, I turned to each one of them and asked “what’s the opening credits of your show look like?” I found that this was a fantastic way to introduce the characters to the group and to get some flavor of each of the characters. The players really got into it and in the end I gave them each one free invoke on an Opening Credits aspect. This is something I really hope gets a mention in the final book.

Up on the stage, Vic had managed to keep playing and rocking even while noticing that several more of the lights were starting to glow with that evil laser light! Thinking quickly, Vic managed to combine his mic stand, a bit of duck tape, and the mirror from an outfit into a laser bouncing device. And so when the deadly light show started in earnest, Vic’s singing was accompanied by him frantically running around the stage, bouncing laser lights back at their source and doing his best to protect Barbara and her band! It was fortunate that he was such an epic performer, as anyone else it would have looked strange. But to Vic’s fans it will be known as one of the greatest concerts of all time!

+Digression: JC was rolling like gangbusters most of the night. And his opening Persuade (the skill we’re using for his performance) roll was EPIC (+7)! I decided that was good enough that he could both deal with the lasers and keep performing. Because it’s awesome, that’s why!

Under the stage, Becca was trying to remember everything Scott Montgomery had taught her about disarming bombs. She was confident that she could walk ace through most of it – it had to be that way, as Rebecca had to lift Ace up so he could deal with the bomb! Fortunately for the concert, Becca was much much stronger than she looked! With barely any effort she managed lifted Ace up and the beach bum was confronted with the wicked bomb. He started cutting wires in sequence, but Becca’s advice was suddenly interrupted by an errant laser lancing through the floor! It cut right through a nearby support beam, and so now Becca had to hold Ace up with one hand and keep the pillar together with her other! It was fortunate that Ace was good at balancing and Becca was very strong.

The sudden interruption had cleared Becca’s mind. She suddenly couldn’t remember if he had to cut the green wire, the red wire, or the blue wire! With the timer ticking down, Ace suddenly closed his eyes and let his instincts take over. He reached out with fumbling hands and just snipped the wire that seemed right. And luckily for everyone, his intuition (or luck) paid off – the timer stopped!

+Digression: This is how things went down. JAZ wanted to see if Becca could create an advantage to state that Becca had learned how to disarm this type of bomb from Scott. Only her roll was a success at minor cost – I ruled that she could remember most of the sequence. She took the deal and things proceeded. When it came time for MJ to make a Gadgetry roll for Ace, he instead told me that he was closing his eyes and trusting his instincts. Which played right into the fact that one of his gonzo skills was Insight. And so I let him roll Insight to disarm the bomb, which worked. As for holding up ace, it was a great combination of two stunts: Becca has a stunt that lets her auto succeed on strength related Athletics rolls, and Ace has a stunt that lets him auto succeed on balance rolls. Which meant that this whole setup worked really well!

Out in the crowd, David was getting a bit bruised. But he was eventually able to drive off the thugs, saving the poor man had been assaulted. But the man, Jeffry Gibson, was still frantic. He kept shouting about his daughter, and before long David had realized that the thugs hadn’t been after Jeff – they’d been after his daughter! Who had now been kidnapped!

The immediate dangers over, the rest of the concert passed rather quickly. David had brought Jeff to security and before long Becca, Ace, and Vic Valiant were in on the search too. The father, frantic about a ransom note, asked the newly formed group of heroes to accompany him back to his house to listen to his messages. And Jeff was right – he did have a package. The kidnappers would return his daughter only if he guarunteed that Pier 42 would be empty that night. The heroes told Jeff to go along with things. They had a plan to set an ambush!

Out on the pier, the heroes set themselves up for the ambush. Ace was set up on the beach, planning to disguise himself as a wandering surfer. David was out in his car, ready to crash through the building. And Vic was near the warehouse, ready to spring into action. The heroes didn’t have that long to wait, as shortly before midnight four speedboats and a larger ship pulled up to the pier. Men in rough shirts and bandanas started unloading large wooden crates from the ship and into the warehouse. Meanwhile, the men in speedboats kept the mounted machine guns trained on the exterior.

Ace tried his bumbling beach guy routine and somehow managed to slip inside the warehouse building. Vic disappeared and suddenly reappeared dressed as one of the bandana guys. He took a moment to check out the crates and discovered that most of them were filled with bags of heroin! But of real interest were the larger crates that were being taken into a strange back room. Curious, both Vic and Ace managed to sneak into the back room. And it looked like nothing so much as a very strange antique shop. Shelves were filled with all manner of strange things. One thing in particular caught Ace’s eye – a strange rune carved shark tooth club. On an impulse he grabbed it up while Vic worked on unlocking the door after it had been closed.

Meanwhile, outside, David waited for his time to strike. And Becca was dealing with a problem of her own. A strange looking ninja with a white tiger had spotted her and the two were now battling it out. The strange ninja moved much like her, and punched with incredible force! It was clear that he had also been augmented somehow, though perhaps it wasn’t bionics that did it! As the rest of the heroes dealt with the warehouse, Becca tangled with this terrible foe.

+Digression: My poor wife wasn’t feeling well at all and had to leave the table early. And so we all decided that Becca had to have a duel with her evil opposite. Who had a tiger, because Becca had been injured by a tiger before she became all bionic.

Vic and Ace managed to get out of the back room, but were spotted by the ninjas in the process! A fight quickly broke out, which David took as his cue to ram his car right through the side of the warehouse! This caught the attention of the speedboat machine gunners, and soon the place was awash in bullets and ninjas! The heroes fought well, but they were all pretty beat up by the time they drove off the remainder of the ninjas. Even worse, there was no sign at all of the kidnapped girl! But there were a few left over speedboats, and K.A.T.T. was able to figure out that the ninjas had come from a hidden cove on the island.

+Digression: This fight was harder than it should have been. Turns out that giving Good (+3) quality mooks a +1 gang up bonus makes them really hard to defend against if you only have a +2 Fight. The Machine Gunners were especially deadly. And so I abruptly decided that they had Poor Maneuverability (-2). This let David shoot them down with some success. But not before poor David soaked up a Minor and Moderate consequence.

The heroes knew what they had to do. They needed to sneak onto the island, and the best thing for that would be loading one of the speedboats with armor and explosives, then slipping off the boat in wetsuits and proceeding on foot! And so Vic started welding on the armor while Davivd found some camouflaged wetsuits and Ace did some Tai Chi down by the beach. A short while later, and David was plugging K.A.T.T. into the boat and the heroes were on their way to rescue the girl!

+Digression: This was the montage scene for the players. They decided on a Rescue Mission and chose Gadgetry, Stealth, and Fight as their skills. Things were a little shaky, but we eventually figured things out. Though there was some confusion on one of the stunts that added invokes to the montage aspect (turns out it was some legacy wording).

The trip to the island was uneventful and before long the heroes were slipping off the boat and into the water. A few quick modifications later and the boat kept going toward the island, the bomb in its prow counting down. The heroes made landfall shortly before the boat hit the docks in a fiery explosion! This gave them the cover they needed to sneak into the secret drug camp. It didn’t take them long to find the shack that the poor girl had been locked in. It only took a few moments for Vic to disarm the alarm on the door and get inside. But the heroes saw that the girl had been strapped into a bomb vest! And pinned on her chest was a note from the Russian, detailing a few vulnerabilities of the drug runners and stating that “you need to do some jobs for the money, comrade.” But Vic was a clever man, and soon he had the vest off the girl and rigged up to explode when the door was opened again. A little more work and Vic had rigged the alarm to go off a short while after the heroes were gone.

This had the predictable effect of drawing a bunch of the drug smugglers, who promptly opened the door and created another explosion. This gave the group cover to rush over to the big trucks, one of which they managed to steal. And so the heroes and the young girl bounced through the heroin fields, while Ace pulled up the indentured workers into the truck, rescuing them in the process. Some fancy driving by David helped the heroes to avoid more guards and before long the truck had slammed into the last few guards down by the docks, freeing the heroes to jump in a boat and make their escape!

Digression: Time was running short, and so what I had thought would be a big final fight instead turned into a stealth mission. Which actually turned out more fun anyway, so I’m glad it happened. My players were very clever, and so things went pretty smoothly. Having a bunch of fate points to toss around at the end didn’t hurt, either.

Once back on dry land, the heroes went their their separate ways. But before long David was approached by a strange man in a suit, who told him that W.A.V.E. could use his help. Rebecca and Scott Montgomery found themselves in a Phoenix Rescue office. It seemed that both of them were going to be assigned as liaisons of Phoenix Rescue for this new organization, W.A.V.E. And Ace? Well, it turned out that Detective Drake Falconsteele was blaming him for the ruckus at the docks. So when a man in a suit turned up to bail him out and talk about maybe getting a paycheck, Ace was all ears.

And that’s how W.A.V.E. managed to recruit four new agents.

+Final Thoughts: For being a playtest, this game ran pretty darn smooth. It helps that it’s based on a system I know well, but I’m still impressed by the polish in these rules. Aside from the few hiccups with a couple of rules questions, the evening was great otherwise. Though I noticed that MJ and JE were both a bit shaky on invoking aspects and some of the other points of fate. Which is something I’ll be putting more focus on. Stacking invocations can be a powerful tool. Anyway, I felt that this was a great start to a new mini campaign!


Apr 142016

Welcome, gentle reader, to the first of my actual play reports on my groups playtest of Shadow of the Century. If you’re not familiar with Shadow of the Century, I suggest you go back and read my overview of the playtest packet. If you’d rather just get a general overview, here’s the short pitch. Shadow of the Century is a Fate Core game set in the same universe as Spirit of the Century. In it you play a New Wave hero fighting corruption in the 80’s. It’s just as awesome as all of those cool TV shows that some of us watched in the 80s.

True to some of the later implementations of fate, the first session is actually used to build up the world and the characters. In Shadow of the Century, this is called the pitch session. Since the pitch session is more about ideas and less about awesome adventures that are fun to read, I’m going to be digressing in this write up more than usual. So in a sense, this is also kind of a review.

Phase One: Format

In this phase, you decide if you’re going to be running a series or a movie. This decision can affect character creation and also changes how the milestones work. Given that the group wanted to give this a good try in the time we had allotted, my group decided on a middle group: a miniseries. In practice we’re going to mostly use the Series rules, but I’ll be handing out bigger milestones a bit more often.

+Digression: This is the first time I’ve seen two different sets of milestones in a Fate Core book (mind you this is personally – they may exist elsewhere and I just don’t know it). This is an idea that just feels so obvious in retrospect, but it’s not really one I would have come up with on my own. I actually wish this sort of advice was more explicit in the Fate Core book itself. And as a guy who really prefers Fate as my system to run during conventions, I find the Movie milestone rules to be especially useful. I think this part might well have actually changed how I run my con games going forward.

Phase Two: Gonzometer

The gonzometer in Shadow of the Century measures just how weird (and powerful) your games are going to get. At the lowest setting, “Bad Dudes and Ladies”, not too much weird is going on. But as you start sliding past “Uh Oh, It’s Magic”, things get a bit weirder. At first my group was set on Bad Dudes and Ladies, but as we discussed it around the table we decided to give “Big Trouble” a shot. Given that my first idea was to run something a bit more grounded, this threw me for a loop at first. But I’ve since come around to liking the idea. Watching Big Trouble in Little China again certainly helped.

Phase Three: Issues

This is where we really started getting into the meat of the game. In a series, you have a Series Issue and a Season Issue. When we sat down, I told my players that I was really inspired to run something based on the islands of Hawaii. Other than that, I didn’t really have that many ideas, so we started kicking things around a bit. Thankfully my group is full of very creative and invested players, and so after not too long we came up with Agents of W.A.V.E. (World Agents of Valorous Exploration). We all agreed that the acronym was fitting. Plus making the heroes a member of general good doing group is fun. After a bit more discussion, we decided our season issue was Tide of Greed. As a group we’ve decided that drugs are flowing into Hawaii from offshore. The drugs are being transported by a bunch of mercenary pirates, who may have their own agenda. And the sale of the drugs is being used to fuel some other nefarious plot (to be figured out later). It’s a solid start to a game.

+Digression: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a bit lazier in my GMing. I’ve also begun to value player input a lot more. So let me tell you that getting the players involved in setting creation is just a win-win situation. Because the players are suggesting things that they’d like to deal with, I know that they’re going to be invested. In addition, I’m outsourcing a lot of thought and time to my players, freeing me up to come up with more embellishments on the basic story framework. For those of you who think this is putting too much power in the hands of the players: try it anyway. I’ve found that once I know a basic framework, it’s way easier to throw in plot twists.

Phase Four: Heroes

Here’s where you get into the meat of things. Now that the GM and players know something about the world and the series, it’s time to put some stats to paper. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with most of the characters my players came up with. They feel like they could have come out of some 80’s TV show, and yet they’re all unique. Here’s a quick rundown of each character (and the player). For more on my players, I suggest you read the first session of my Deadlands: Reloaded actual play. Anything marked with a (G) is Gonzo, a role or skill you can use in special was.

“Ace” (played by MJ)

Ace is an interesting guy. On the surface he’s kind of this stoner beach bum surfer. And when you dig a little deeper, he’s still kind of that guy. But if you go just a bit deeper than that, you’ll find this unlikely sort of hero. You’ll also find a detective who seems to be “sensitive” to certain things. Ace always seems to bumble into just the right sort of answer at exactly the wrong time. He does odd jobs around the island when he’s not working as a private investigator. Oh, and Detective Drake Falconsteele has it in for him!

High Concept: Bumbling Beach Bum Bloodhound (G)
Trouble: Down and Out in Paradise
Other Aspects: We’d Better Investigate!, Been Hauled In More Than Once
Roles: Detective, Face, Unlikely Hero (G)
Skills: Athletics +3 (G), Awareness +3 (G), Burglary +1, Contacts +2, Drive +2, Fight +2, Insight +5 (G), Knowledge +1, Persuade +1, Provoke +1, Stealth +1, Will +2 (G)
Stunts: I Am the Chosen One (G), In Their Head, Like a Cat, Touched a Nerve.

Rebecca “B.E.C.C.A. Jones (played by JAZ, a.k.a. the wife)

Rebecca was one just a talented veterinarian at the Honolulu Zoo. But when an improperly sedated tiger mauled her during surgery, her life changed forever. She was near death when a nearby Phoenix Rescue agent saw her potential and took her to a top secret laboratory. There they packed her full of cutting edge cyber-technology. Now she works for Phoenix Rescue as Codename: B.E.C.C.A. (Bionically Enhanced Catastrophe Containment Agent). (Becca uses both a Gonzo role and a custom Role [Veterinarian]).

High Concept: Codename: B.E.C.C.A.
Trouble: Perpetually in Beta
Other Aspects: I’ve Tangled With Tigers
Roles: Bionic (G), Veterinarian, Warrior
Skills: Athletics +6 (G), Awareness +3 (G), Computers +1, Drive +1, Fight +3 (G), Insight +2 (G), Knowledge +3, Persuade +1, Provoke +1, Shoot +1, Stealth +1, Will +1
Stunts: Battle Hardened, Bionic Woman (G), Miracle Worker

David King (played by JE)

David was a simple auto mechanic and stunt driver who happened to be dating a brilliant programmer named Katherine. Then one day some strange Japanese men in suits killed Katherine. But with her last dying breaths, Katherine was able to transfer her memories and consciousness into her computer. Now she lives on as K.A.T.T. (Katherine Assisted Turing Technology). And David has become the Chrome Crusader, a man driven to fight evil in the world.

High Concept: Chromed Crusader (G)
Trouble: My Girlfriend, the A.I.
Other Aspects: Driven to Justice, At Odds with Street Thunder
Roles: Brain, Cop, Crusader (G)
Skills: Athletics +2, Awareness +2 (G), Computers +2 (G), Drive +5 (G), Fight +1, Gadgetry +2, Insight +1, Knowledge +1, Provoke +3 (G), Shoot +3, Stealth +1, Will +2
Stunts: Gearhead, One Hand on the Wheel, Prototype A.I. (G)

Scott Montgomery AKA “Vic Valiant” (played by JC)

The triumphant return of missing player JC meets a triumphant 80’s character. Scott Montgomery is an agent for Phoenix Rescue. And as an agent, he’s well known for his inventive solutions to problems and his mastery of engineering. But Phoenix Rescue was finding that inserting him into some countries was becoming difficult, and so Scott became Vic Valiant, New Wave Rock God. Now he has to balance his life as a secret agent and his persona as one of the leading musicians of the day. (In other words, it’s an awesome mash up of Gem and MacGyver).

High Concept: Rock God Secret Agent Scientist
Trouble: 3…2…1…
Other Aspects: We are the World…, Have Tools, Will Rescue, Phoenix Rescue Scientific Laison
Roles: Inventor, Rock God (G), Spy
Skills: Athletics +2 (G), Awareness +1, Burglary +2, Computers +1, Contacts +1, Drive +1, Gadgetry +3, Knowledge +2, Persuade +3 (G), Provoke +2 (G), Resources +3 (G), Stealth +3
Stunts: Rock Star Persona (G), And Duct Tape, Theory in Practice, A Thousand Faces

Phase Five: Cast

This was also one of my favorite phases. In this phase, each player gets three index cards upon which to write a name. Once everyone has their three names, everyone passes the cards to their left and for each name the player (and GM!) writes down one factoid, thought, or idea. Once that’s done, you pass the cards around again and repeat the process. Then everything gets tossed in the center to become some of the supporting cast in the game. We, as a group, had a ton of fun with this phase. So much, in fact, that we actually passed the cards around a third time, just so everyone could touch each card (my wife was missing for this session, so it was only 3 players and me). Then we passed them one more time and let everyone read out their new formed NPC.

I have to say, some of the results were really surprising. Some of the highlights included:

  • Two of the “model” sound female names? Both of them ended up being secret or hidden geniuses. One is a phD in Programming, the other is a phD in Chemistry. Weird, but somehow very 80s.
  • Shorty, who was intended to be one of Aces “beach kids” he went to for information, ended up becoming a Professional Snitch and Fence. Who drives a Pinto!
  • Drake Falconsteele (with apologies to mister Aaron Williams), who I thought would end up being a bad guy, instead became a badass navy seal veteran police detective. Who’s by the book and has it in for Ace.

+Digression: This is another one of those ideas that could be used for almost any system. I am seriously in love with the NPC generation method set up here. I think I’ll be using this method for almost all of my other games. Heck, I might do it several times in one game, as it’s pretty quick and gets the players invested.

Phase Six: Villains

With our supporting cast out of the way, it was time to look at villains. After kicking around some ideas for a bit,  we came up with the following ideas:

  • The Oni are pushing some new drugs into Hawaii. They have at least two upper managment guys around.
  • There’s a corrupt mayor or city official looking to do some sort of land grab.
  • “Mister Han”, an antiquities dealer who’s somehow connected to the Oni.
  • A Ghost Fleet out there in the water. Sort of a mysterious thing.

And just for fun, here are a few margin notes that I can’t quite remember what I was doing with!

  • Throwing Girls in a Volcano?
  • Yoshiru Foods
  • Hawaiian Gods – Pele Cult
  • Go Watch Simon and Simon!
  • Magnum is awesome.
  • Showtime, Synergy!

Phase Seven: Heroes, Revisited

At this point, everyone actually gets to make their heroes. But I’ve posted them up above in Phase Four (which was actually just used for name, high concept, and trouble). But yeah, this is where I helped the players with the actual nuts and bolts of making their characters. This was also the point where I was super glad that JC was back, as he knows Fate nearly as well as I do and was able to help the other players. There was a bit of confusion at first, and some players made changes later in the week, but all in all it was a great way to end things up. Much fun was had by all and everyone got home on time.

+Digression: Fate is one of those games that makes character creation into a session into itself. And as I’ve grown older and more experienced as a gamer, I’ve come to really appreciate these types of sessions. It really helps to make sure that everyone is on the same page from the word go. I think I’m going to adopt the same tactics in any future games that I happen to run. And I could do far, far worse than snagging this format almost directly.

Mar 272016

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.

Visual Design

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Mar 252016

I’m a big fan of Fate Core. I’m also a huge fan of it’s Granddaddy, Spirit of the Century. So when Evil Hat started asking for playtesters for Shadow of the Century, you better believe I jumped at it! And I’m very happy to report that me and my group got into the playtest. So Deadlands is taking a break so that I can test this lovely little game.

So far I’ve been jumping around in the text a fair bit, and finally sat down to do a full read. But before I get dug in for the night, I wanted to post a few first impressions about the playtest document. I’ll likely do a larger writeup once I finish and digest all of the rules, but right now I’m excited enough to toss a few random ideas at the wall. Here’s what I’m loving right now:

  • The introduction. In just four short pages, the book brings you up to speed and gives you just enough information to get you really excited. As a player, I get excited. As a GM, my mind is already spinning. Just some really great stuff.
  • The flavor. Dear God, the flavor! As I read, I can totally hear my stereo blaring some Toto or MJ. Neon lights glow in my eyes and I can just feel the denim jacket on my shoulders. For gamers of a certain age, this text is a shot of pure adrenaline and nostalgia right to the heart. The references to 80s action and TV are all over the place. This thing was so obviously written by someone who knows the decade well and clearly has a lot of love for it.
    • Note: I should state that I’m a member of Gen-X and I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I have a great deal of nostalgia for stuff like this. I still giggle and smile whenever I catch a rerun of Magnum P.I. or MacGuyver. To a large degree, this game really speaks to me. Which probably makes me incredibly biased. And the rest of my group is all very much in the same age range. We can totally talk the tropes as easy as breathing.
  • Modes are back, and better than ever. With just a few small tweaks, they took what was a little confusing and made it much simpler. I simply adore how much simpler this has been made. My wife, who had a little trouble with Robo’s modes, immediately understood this version.
  • I sat down and thought of some of my favorite 80s heroes – I could make every single one with what’s in the book. Heck, you can even make Knight Rider right out of the book. Which is good, as JE is going to be playing a Knight Rider expy.
  • Montages. They. Are. Amazing. They’re sort of like Brainstorms from Robo, but different. They create special aspects that can be invoked to do special things. And they’re totally, utterly spot on for the 80s.
  • At first glance, the GM advice is all very solid. Especially for folks who didn’t grow up in the 80s.
  • VHS. There’s a game term that abbreviates VHS. I am tickled pink.

More to come when I read more. Gotta be ready for our pitch session next week!

Oh, I do know one thing. The game is set in Hawaii. The PCs will all be working for their mysterious benefactor, Robert Masterly. They will be badgered by the caretaker, one Jonathon Doyle MacGuffin III, Baron of Perth. I gotta do. For Oma (one of my fondest memories was keeping my great grandmother company after school; she loved Magnum P.I.)