A few years ago, on a truly crappy day, I had the saving grace of being introduced to an independent short film by the name of Kung Fury. For those unfamiliar, it was a wonderful bit of over the top, profane 80’s cheese: a Kung Fu Master/detective who is a lone wolf is forced to team up with his new partner Triceracop as they take on sinister transforming arcade machines/killer robots, Laser Raptors, and a Time Traveling Adolf Hitler…who wants to own the title of “Kung Fuhrer”. All complete with poor VCR tracking to boot.
(It’s a lot like this)
I say all this because I have found a new tabletop game to support any GM who looked at all this and went, “I would love to run something in here”: Shadow of the Century, written by Brian Engard, Stephen Blackmoore, and Morgan Ellis and published by Evil Hat Productions.
I was first introduced to this game’s forerunner, Spirit of the Century, back in 2013, when I had expressed an interest in another Fate product (The Dresden Files RPG, which I have already written about), and a friend passed along a copy to get a feel for the system before I decided whether or not to purchase the DFRPG, so it really was my first taste of the Fate system’s mechanics. It certainly was a good selling point, and I bought in. These two games hold a curious place in the development of the Fate system as a whole: they were released before the 4th edition of Fate Core, but as more specific games they have their own foibles that you could sometimes see reflected or fixed in Fate Core, like watching a fossil record in a creature’s evolution.
So, when I noticed that Evil Hat was going to release a follow up to Spirit of the Century, I had to take a look. What I was most pleased about was that the authors didn’t simply go, “ok, we are going to do the same thing that we did in Spirit and make it an 80’s version.” Shadow is a sequel to the previous game, where the characters of the previous iterations have been through some stuff. The closest thing I can imagine is the changing eras of comic books, especially with how it is portrayed in Watchmen, the classic graphic novel.
Spirit of the Century was a 1920’s pulp setting, a setting with the hallmark over the top and bigger than life heroes (and villains), romance, fantastic settings, set in a world full of wonder and mystery. Then, 60 years of history happened. In the wake of World War II, the villains of the setting (The Shadows) were picked up by governments looking to make their mark in the new Cold War landscape. Nuclear Power becomes a complication to the world stage. The heroes of the Golden Age, the Centurions, are forced into hiding after scrutiny from the HUAC and Joe McCarthy. Villains have gotten smarter: forming organized crime networks worldwide, dominating the economy, corporate conglomerates, and even making a push for the presidency of the United States. As the game puts it, “this is a world where the bad guys have not only won, they’ve become the status quo.”
But to this world remains heroes, “New Wave” heroes. A few of the old Centurions remain, aged and wizened but with over a half a century of experience in the field. Their opponents might have grown sneakier, but they’ve learned a few tricks as well. They have spent decades hiding in the shadows, and have time to pick proteges and recruit special talents. There is no longer a grand society, but cells of new heroes act, fighting wherever they see injustice.
In terms of mechanics, Shadow of the Century follows as a supplement to Fate Core, and mostly remains within the general function of that system. Without going in too deep into rehashing the Fate Core system, characters are encouraged to declare Aspects about themselves: identifying characteristics or quick quips that summarize something special about the character. Each character builds a pyramid of Skills that shows what the character is good at, and a set of Stunts that allow for bonuses in certain situations. Fate dice provide a bell curve of results around those skills. To bump up characters power into something supernatural, players are able to take Gonzo traits
But within these mechanics, a vital part of the game is this: it is supposed to be a love letter to the 1980’s full of all the macho and weird gonzo action. It is filling up all of the tropes of the era: skepticism of authority, the independent spirit, sticking it to the man, hair metal, the birth of hip hop, Blade Runner, The Empire Strikes Back, and the Terminator. It’s the time of Thriller,Teen Wolf, The Karate Kid and Big Trouble in Little China. Over the top is now par for the course. And I truly believe that nothing exemplifies this as well as the Montage mechanic.
Yes, I have to say that again: there are mechanics for how to execute montages of all sorts: gearing up for challenges, the group preparing for an epic conflict, one party member getting training from other members for a one on one fight…all while epic metal blares in the background. To me this, more than anything, sets the tone for the game.
The game designers have also cleverly taken the fantastic from the 1920’s and applied it to the 1980’s with what they refer to as Gonzo rules. Making yet another 80’s pun, the strange and supernatural has been described as “Variable Hyperdimensional Simultaneity”…that is to say, “VHS”. Timelines have gone screwy, and there are pockets of chaos where strange things happen along the lines of a “gonzo-meter”, which ranges between 1 and 3. At level one, yes, you might be nunchuck fighting ninjas in Time Square, but nothing strange is happening…but as you increase the level, things get weirder. Players who want to be a bit supernatural can build “Gonzo” into their characters. This typically requires at least one Aspect that describes how you are off the rails, and levels are built into Stunt to describe how powerful these abilities are. The cost to activate them depends on the Gonzo-meter, the closest thing to a power level cap in the game. The more normal settings can have a player be a were-wolf and have a nascent wild nature that can be accessed for free, but accessing powerful and more supernatural stunts require an expenditure equal to the setting’s “Gonzo Level”. GM’s can choose to set the craziness level all at one time, or might feel that it’s fun to turn up the crazy for special events/big boss fights and let everything loose. This can also be a very nice balancing tool so the kung fu wizard who can blow up planets matches up with a cowboy cop with nothing to loose when handling mundane situations.
And yet, even with all the mechanical wackiness, the core does an excellent job of providing examples of games that GM’s might want to set to players: a group of ex-military vets acting as mercenaries with a heart of gold (The A-Team). A group of young adventurers trying to step into the limelight and become the visible face of heroics, all while they fight against a corrupt political party with incredible support. A group of famous musicians who use their cover to act as thieves against the rich and powerful. They are excellent prompts, and they can give a foundation for things that players might want to dig up: a wild cop whose partner was killed looking to avenge his death. A group of vets and mercenaries dragged in to fight against something that lurks in the jungle. An ongoing fight against a group of drug dealers entering the neighborhood. And yet…there is a chance to be better. We, as people, have the benefit of hindsight about those years. We know the terrifying consequences of Reaganomics, the utter failure of the War on Drugs, and the horrifying treatment of the LGBT community. The authors know about it, and make mention of it, saying that players don’t need to play these issues out true to the era. But I do truly believe that it offers an opportunity, so long as you make sure that you have player buy in beforehand. There are legitimate chances to shine a light on the issues of a previous era, an era that often has been unfairly glamorized without a deeper look.
All in all, it’s a game that fits my group’s tendency for crazy over-the-top play. It may slide into one of our tendencies wherein Fate games tend to be at least a little tongue in cheek, but I think that it could be absolutely wonderful for some one-shots. Longer campaigns might be tough for our merry band, as we would immediately push the Gonzo-meter to 3 and might try to push it even beyond, and it would take a careful hand by the GM to prevent things from just being silly . . . but I think that we could do it. Overall, I fully recommend that you check the game out, if only to look for yourself and come up with some crazy concepts that you might have a ball playing.
If interested in purchasing Shadow of the Century, it is available for advance order here with an anticipated release date of February 19th, 2019. In the meanwhile, do you feel like sharing some crazy 80’s setting stories? Maybe some Cyberpunk 2020…