Spirit of the Century is sold, and sells itself, as a “pickup game.” The pervading sense in the text is that the game’s intended to be low-prep for the GM: a game which writes itself. There are a number of tools included in the game for this, but the two most important are the basic story grammar, and the notes on utilizing character backgrounds.
At the risk of sparking yet another round of contentious debate on this, I see these two as being basically orthogonal, one powered by the story and one by the character. They can act in concert but they don’t necessarily.
For the story grammar, the details of the characters are not relevant. There is a threat, there is a villain, there are some manoeuvres and at the end of the day good triumphs over evil. The basic story shape as laid out is not affected by the characters: they merely provide the detail and colour. Using the grammar means that, in theory, all you need to worry about are those details.
The aspect-driven method pays no real regard to the story. At each juncture the GM reviews the aspects of the PCs and inserts something related to an aspect into the adventure. The notion is that because something inherently important to a PC is involved, they’ll care, and get involved. And a story will develop organically with any kind of sensible selection of aspects to probe.
Ideally, of course, the aspects will dovetail with the grammar so that at each juncture in the story there is also a relevant aspect to involve. The rulebook goes to great lengths to try and explain to prospective players how to select aspects such that they will dovetail in this way.
And obviously, if more than one set of PC aspects can be tugged, or nearly tugged, at the same time it involves more people and hence greater fun. It’s probably for this reason that the designers chose to have people retroactively guest-star in novels, rather than necessarily collaborate on future stories. It results, potentially, in three characters drawing on the same basic story for 2 aspects each. So if someone’s first novel is about slashing through the Andes, both guest-stars will also likely pick up aspects related to the Andes: to that character’s defining novel. When the GM tugs on an aspect “amazon river”, he’s going to catch three PCs in the crossfire through similar, but different, aspects.
As I’ve already related, this was not absolutely successful for my group. Given my basic premiss of “1920s occult pulp” only the Green Gargoyle really dovetailed nicely. Other characters had no real bias towards either occult adventures, or adventures in NYC. Indeed, I don’t think that any trio of characters really suggested converging stories. And their aspects, even having featured in the relevant novels from GG, didn’t reflect those novels’ thematic elements very well, instead rationalizing into those novels pre-conceived Aspects.
Faced with the situation of divergent PCs, I opted to use the basic story grammar provided by the game authors. Endanger the characters, reveal the true danger, insert a complication, reveal a certain doom, wrap it up. For each of their basic story turning points I made a one-line notation about where I saw the story, and for each character I noted down one or two aspects that looked like they could be relevant, and then I waited for the group to turn up for Session 1: my bases were covered.
This is just about the least amount of preparation I’ve ever done for a game. But, I had no fear in my heart for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the group I’d arranged for the game are all experienced and competent. Secondly, the basic story grammar they suggests seemed fine to me. Thirdly, with the backup of the limited shared-narrative power of Aspects, the group had a powerful tool for influencing the game beyond merely trying to play the characters truly.
I opened the game with the characters imperilled: holed up in an antique bookstore with an angry cult outside. And almost just as immediately, things started to go wrong. The players seemed, if not confused, then definitely not enthused, by the opening scene. Half the group tried to dash around frantically being involved with everything, half sat back and did nothing at all.
I was very soon asked for a range of details, and three PCs found themselves embroiled in battling a mob of cultists. In fact, upon describing a horde of 60+ cultists, one character actually simply lept out of the bookstore with a view to killing the whole lot in hand to hand fighting. The immediate danger to the story was that this would cripple group unity: with a whole party subdued you cut to a death-trap scene, with only half… you’re left with half the group uninvolved.
We muddled through the nominal adventure plan, and I think it was a disappointing experience for everyone involved.
While it’s difficult to rank the relative importance of the things that went wrong, I have a few ideas about what those errors might have been.
My own mind betrayed me: I simply couldn’t invent plausibly consistent detail as fast as the PCs tried to uncover it. What do the cultists want? Well, it wasn’t on my plan: but a Dread Book. Okay, now why? Oh, so they didn’t get it… what now? Yeah, so they are going to do bad stuff anyway (or there’s no adventure)… what? And so on. I was very quickly off my pithy little story track. Perhaps this is a failure to implement the abundance of excellent GMing tips in the book, or a more general slow-witted nature: who could say? What I can say is that the story grammar alone wasn’t enough, much more detailed preparation was required.
As with most previous pulp virgins, I found there wasn’t a lot of intuition for the narrow line that pulps walk between rationality and cool, and between mortals and supers. There was an unhealthy amount of player time spent trying to figure out how all the bits worked as if it were a mystery. And there were a few occasions where the players simply acted as though they were invincible. And possibly more deadly than both of these, where NPCs seemed like they could be useful for actually executing parts of the plot, the players were all for roping them in.
Now, I had gone through the characters and picked a few that looked interesting. But I really struggled with speedy and improvised implementations of these seeds. I was a bit surprised about that, because I’ve had a moderate amount of success with this tool in my SotC hack for Planescape. When I really looked carefully at the Aspects afterwards, I thought that I’d picked the wrong ones for my story grammar, and couldn’t remember the ones I hadn’t highlighted well enough for speedy substitutions. So the tool I had hoped to use actually impeded me slightly by wasting processing-thinking time in the midst of the game.
More generally, the Aspects were used almost solely by the players as a way of getting a re-roll. The wider implications of tagging and compelling aspects for particular kinds of stories were never explored at all. No aspects were used to help insert detail or flavour, and so their whole point was no greater than a supply of Drama points in Buffy.
For all of these failings, I must take my share of the blame. But also, more generally, I think that these are not as easy to use and implement as they seem like they should be. The conventions of traditional game are not easy to overcome, and it takes more than just a working knowledge of the concepts to quickly and painlessly express them to the players, in such a way as they seem natural. A large part of my thinking before every pulp game has been about how to convey the free-wheeling adventure without pushing the silliness to hard, and I saw quickly that a pithy explanation of aspects would necessarily be an additional bit of exposition at the game’s opening.
The basic conclusion I drew was that my original optimistic ideal of a group of PCs written by others and a free-wheeling an loosely structured game driven by the players of those characters from which I could plunder was a total fantasy.
As a result I sat down to do the hard work of a convention GM: writing characters and plotlines as needed. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.