Tuesday, August 17, 2010

3 Days, 3 Games, 3 Different Styles (Part 3)

Spirit of the Century. Now THIS is a game I’ve wanted to buy for a while…pretty much since I read a review on RPG.net about how it’s the best pulp RPG on the market. Or something like that. It’s just that money in my pocket has yet to coincide with presence of book at game shop.

I’ve written before, often enough, that I have something of an obsessive-compulsive psychology re superhero games. The only reason I don’t own more pulp games, though, is because there are more superhero RPGs on the market.

I love turn o the (20th) century pulp. It may be my favorite genre of all time.

And I mean like EARLY pulp…pre-WWII stuff. Yes, yes, Indiana Jones is all well and good, but I am sooo tired of Nazis being the bad guy goon du jour. Give me other craziness, not the damn Krauts AGAIN. SHeesh!

But I’m digressing (sorry)…PULP is where it’s at, IMO. I pick up games like Adventure! and Hollow Earth Expedition (HEX) and Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (post-apoc, I know but…) and Indiana Jones (which I actually returned to the store, as I found it too dumb…as a game SYSTEM, not just because of the Nazis...).

Not that I’ve ever had the chance to play…or run…any of ‘em. : (

But whatever…when I hit the Story Lounge on Sunday, the GM gestured grandly to a list of indie RPGs on the wall and asked what I was interested in playing. With Spirit of the Century on the list, there really was no other choice for me.

Plus, it seemed something of a favorite for Ogre as well (“Ogre” was the name of the GM. He looked about what you’d expect, except younger…about my age. Apparently, he was a bouncer downtown for a number of years, but he assures me his nickname is older than that). Spirit of the Century uses the FATE game system (which I believe is available as a free download on-line) with quite a few adjustments. The authors of SotC are the same folks who put out the recent Dresden Files RPG, another game I have not played (I’ve never read the books, nor seen the TV show, either), but which Ogre lauded considerably, stating the designers had really refined the SotC rules, making them all the sweeter.

Well, I didn’t care about playing “the only sorcerer listed in the Chicago phone book.” I wanted PULPDepression-era pulp. My only caveat:

“No Nazis, please.”

Easy enough.

Besides Ogre and myself, there were two other players sitting at the table. Eric, who was both younger and thinner than myself (making him by far the skinniest kid I’d seen in the RPG section of the convention) might have been in his late teens or early 20s and looked nothing like a shiny vampire. The other player…God help me, I completely failed to catch her name, and couldn’t tell you it even if you held a Luger to my head. Dammit.

Well, it’s not all MY fault…she came in the middle of character creation (or rather, at the end of it) and my head was already elsewhere. Since I can’t just keep referring to her as "the girl," I’ll refer to her by her character name: Walker. Sometimes “Dr. Walker,” sometime “Ula-Ani Walker.” We’ll get to all that.

First, let’s get back to my introduction to Spirit of the Century. Unlike my Traveller and PDQ games, there were no “pre-generated characters” for SotC. Hell, there wasn’t any pre-set adventure either. Like more than a few indie games, the point of play is to have a kick-ass adventure based on the characters you’ve designed specifically for the game…it’s not about exploring some clever scenario or dungeon that’s been dreamed up by the GM. This made the game feel much more free-form and open than either Traveller or PDQ…and yet the game was still very “tight” due to its focus on the player characters at hand.

Ogre explained how the standard chargen works in SotC and how it can take a whole game session in and of itself. For the Con, he used a shortened, streamlined version of the chargen, and it worked quite well for a one-off game. It goes a bit like this:

Every character is composed of three types of traits: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects (of which your character has 10) are descriptors that define who your character is and what he does, like “two-fisted heiress” or “Hong Kong action hero” or “has pockets full of money” or “the best shot in all of Africa” or whatever. Aspects were important, as they could be activated, or “tapped,” (through the expenditure of FATE chips) to get re-rolls or bonuses to rolls or impact the narrative of the game. They could also be used as “ins” by which the GM could tempt your character into doing detrimental things. For example, if your character is a “ladies man” and his friends are in a fight outside the bar, the GM can tempt you with a FATE chip to stay in the bar, chatting up the girl next to you instead of running outside to help. When an aspect gets tapped by the GM in this way, you can refuse the temptation (and the FATE chip)…but only by paying a FATE chip of your own.

Skills are, well, skills and there is set list (and thank God it is a SHORT list). Characters get 15 skills total…one at +5, two at +4, three at +3, etc.. Any skill you don’t have is +0.

For the streamlined chargen, we didn’t worry about Stunts at all, and we only picked about half our skills up front (the others were added in play as necessary). As for Aspects, we all still had ten, but we only picked three to start, adding the rest in play as and when appropriate. The three Aspects we needed to choose:

Our High Concept
Something About Us That Gets Us In Trouble
As Played By The Actor [blank]

In hindsight, I can see that my lack of experience made me choose less than desirable choices for these categories. First off, I had a fairly strong concept of a character in my head...and I had a damned hard time articulating it. Take Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and have him played by perpetual sad-sack Harry Dean Stanton, and you start to get the idea.

My character was an American ex-pat, probably fleeing at least one if not two ex-wives, working as a smuggler and profiteer...jingoistic about American (e.g. capitalism) values, even while a shiftless double-dealer himself. His "trouble" aspect was "big talker" that could might sometimes help, but often got him punched in his big nose. He had few real "skills" of note...he could lie and swindle (probably mainly women of low self-esteem and uneven prospects at anything better), and was happy to take advantage of drunks and...well, most anyone so long as he could find an "in." So long as he didn't have to work too hard for it.

Your basic jackass, I suppose...though at times a lovable one. In many ways, he was kind of the mirror-opposite of my Traveller character, who had been a "smooth operator."

Oh, yeah, his name: "Buddy" Kowalski. His enemies just called him Kowalski. He introduced himself and insisted that friends and prospective clients call him "Buddy." Most folks ended up calling him Kowalski.

Now as a CONCEPT, this is a fine and dandy character to play in a role-playing game. The hard part with SotC is that the Aspects are actually supposed to be used actively. How and when would I ever use the Aspect "as played by Harry Dean Stanton?" Answer: I didn't. Maybe if I'd ever had a scene with an estranged wife or disappointed child. But such a scene never came up in our session.

By contrast, Eric's Aspect "as played by the action hero Tony Jaa" was useful more than once...generally when kicking ass.

Both Eric and I started with our actor FIRST to determine “who we’d like to play in a pulp film” (I understand the game is more about pulp serial novels, but when you ask for the name of an actor, well…). Before Ms. Walker showed up, we thought it might be some sort of “buddy” story…him with the Asian martial arts guy, me with slightly shady, fast talker dude.

Walker’s player (dammit, I’m just going to refer to her as “Carol;” understand this wasn’t her real name)…CAROL came at character creation with a different approach. When she arrived, we had just decided we were island-hopping, smuggler-types in the South Pacific (a la the old TV show Tales of the Gold Monkey). Carol created her character primarily by WHAT she wanted to play and secondarily by HOW the character would fit into the scenario. Only after that did she try to figure our an actor (and had a semi-rough time of it).

Carol’s character, DR. Walker was some sort of 1920s equivalent of a marine biologist/oceanographer/something-or-other…basically, she was an educated socialite tourist studying and cataloguing island flora and fauna. Dr. Walker was played by Sigourney Weaver (reprising her doctor role from Avatar), and was pushy, no-nonsense, self-righteous, and independent. She had hired Eric and myself to furnish her tourism/scientific excursion.

Erik’s character, Jao, was the hot-shot Thai pilot (I made it clear that Buddy had absolutely no idea how to fly or fix the plane, even though it was his livelihood…a true ne’er-do-well!), who…for some unknown reason, never explored…had teamed up with Buddy. Jao always did the “honorable thing” (this was his “trouble” aspect) was great in a fight (Thai kick-boxing), cool under pressure, quiet and polite.

Buddy, well…is ne’er-do-well too strong a term? Carol and I decided that Buddy and Walker did NOT get along (he was a chauvinist of the true 1920s type without being suave or romantic, and couldn’t take a woman “doctor” seriously). He would often call her Ms. Walker to which she’d loudly correct him…whereas she’d call him Mr. Kowalski despite being told repeatedly to call him Buddy. His relationship with Jao was fairly good. Originally I told Eric I was going to call his character “Jerry” regardless of his actual name (‘cause that’s the kind of guy Buddy is...) but this didn’t pan out. It was just too funny to whine “Jo-oW!” at the poor guy on a regular basis.

In Spirit of the Century, everything gets defined by aspects to a certain degree, which can then be tapped by the players or the GM. This included our plane, which we decided to call “Gold Monkey.” Ogre asked each of us to contribute an aspect to it:

JB: “Second-Rate.”
Carol: “Over-Loaded.”
Erik: “One-of-a-Kind.”

The Gold Monkey was a flying boat. Ogre set the scene that we were tied up to a dock at a small island in the Philippines. Jao was minding the plane, while Buddy was trying to round up some additional cargo to take with us (this was my idea, and probably a leftover from that whole “twofer” deal in the Traveller game). Dr. Walker was at the Doc with Jao waiting impatiently to get underway.

Buddy found another American ex-pat…a retired Navy man and a drunk sitting in front of a warehouse with several cases of rum for sale. I haggled him down to 75% of what would’ve been fair, playing to his sympathy as a fellow American amongst savages, etc. and basically taking advantage of the guy. After money changed hands, Buddy wanted delivery down to the docks. The old sailor wanted Buddy to pay him if he had to haul his rum, too.

“Come on, pal, weren’t we just talking about how hard it is to find good help around these parts? I’m sure you’ve got a couple locals you trust as porters…me, I’d have to hire some guy off the street who’d probably steal from me! Can’t you extend me a little professional courtesy?”

Feisty Coot (incredulous): “YOU were in the Navy?”

“Well, the Merchant Marines…”

I made it clear Buddy had never done ANY kind of military service, ever. But he made his deceit role just fine, even without having to tap aspects, and the old Sea Dog hauled my rum to the doc, gratis.

Where Buddy would eventually arrive to face a fuming Dr. Walker.

MISTER Kowalski –“

Buddy, ma’am, just Buddy.”

MISTER Buddy, how DARE you leave me waiting here when I’ve paid good money to retain your services to Truk…”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but it can’t be helped…things aren’t like the States and we’re on 'island time;' besides we have this shipment of medical supplies that just came in at the last minute…”

“Medical supplies?! What ARE you talking about?”

“Orphans, ma’am…we’re ferrying much needed medical supplies to an orphanage on Truk…JOW! Make sure those medical supplies are stowed safely…those bottles are fragile!”

And so it goes…we finally took off after making sure the “medical supplies” were secured along with Doc Walker’s scientific instruments. And off we flew…almost immediately encountering some sort of tropical storm. While Jao wrestled with the controls, Carol and I decided our characters would “help” by yelling panicked directions at him. Well...Dr. Walker told him how to fly, while Buddy yelled at the Doc to stop distracting Jao (distracting him myself with the argument). Eric had to make several rolls in an attempt to work up from “Crashing with Repairs Needed” to “Landing safely with Repairs Needed.” Fortunately, despite our distraction (for which we both received FATE chips, tapping “independent woman” and “big talker”), Jao managed to bring us in for a landing with only minor repairs necessary.

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