Spirit of the Century
About this review…
This game is over 10 years old which means this review is less technical and more a retrospective look-back.
About bad history…
Like a lot of fiction from the past. “Pulp adventure” was no stranger to racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic themes. This game leaves those elements in the past, but talk to your players, it can be hard to separate the tropes and ideas from their flawed origins.
As always, here’s what it says on the tin…
A PULP PICKUP ROLEPLAYING GAME
The deadly Doctor Methuselah seeks to unravel time itself with his solution to the Eternity Equation... Gorilla Khan stalks darkest Africa from conquered Atlantis... Mad scientists, strange sorcerers, and power-hungry dictators all seek to undo the fate of humanity. It's the final century of the second millennium — and you are our last hope!
Spirit of the Century is a complete, stand-alone pulp role-playing game based on the award-winning Fate system (Indie RPG Awards include: Best Free Game of 2003, Best Support, and Andy's Choice). Spirit features a heavily revised, revisited, and reimagined vision of Fate. Character creation can be done as quickly as a few minutes, or expand to take up an evening; adventure design is a snap with three methods for creating relevant, flavorful, player-focused stories at a moment's notice. Spirit's mission is to deliver an evening of fun, a "pick-up" game that requires little preparation, but provides hours of entertainment.
All you will need to play are some friends, some dice, and this book.
I’m the pulp-action hero. The two-fisted. The square-jawed. The person you stand behind. You never question my methods. In my world, it’s punch first, ask questions later. And punching is always the answer.
You understand me because you want to be me. You’ve coveted my whip, prop plane, and red blaster since childhood. I’ve killed more Nazis and thwarted more gangsters than you can count. The zeppelins are filled with them.
When you were a kid, I was adulthood, or what you thought it should be. I’m Xena Warrior Princess, Zorro, and Indiana Jones all rolled into one. Doc Savage, The Rocketeer, and Captain Nemo are my friends. I’m not just a person. I’m an idea. Years from now, historians will study our stories and call us the spirit of a century.
It’s a classic. Buy this game. Published in 2006, it’s the quintessential pulp adventure RPG. Plenty of contenders came before, and smarter, better-produced games have challenged it since, but Spirit of the Century is an original. Everything after is a remake.
Games like Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu are descendants of the pulps. Tolkien didn’t inspire our games, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, and HP Lovecraft did. This game is no different, except it’s not inspired by pulp. It is pulp. Those previous games made their way down the evolutionary tree from fish into mammals. Spirit didn’t make those changes. It’s an alligator. It’s not exactly like the original pulp magazines, but it looks and feels like it is.
But what about Fate Core, the universal system Spirit eventually became? Shouldn’t I be buying that? You ask, so smart and logical. I tap my temple, because you’re right, but I have my reason you should buy this first.
With no setting, a Fate game can be lots of things. Until the game master builds something, it’s an IKEA catalog – the way IKEA is to furniture, Fate is to action rpgs. Except it’s all genres of action. It’s pulp, cyberpunk, fantasy, gangsters, and horror. It can “do everything” with the right amount of assembly. It’s the RPG equivalent of bookshelf, cabinets, and sofa all in one box.
Spirit of the Century, on the other hand, is just one kind of action. It doesn’t “ do everything.” It can’t tell gritty crime stories, sci-fi thrillers, or Greek tragedies. In Spirit, your characters without intervention will always transform into cheesy, bulletproof idealists. Spirit is limited. It can only tell one genre of games. But a rare and precious one.
Does it have flaws? Yes. Great action heroes, especially pulp ones, need one-liners, strong traits, and Mary Sue tendencies. This game delivers them with heavy-handed rules. As a result, the player characters can feel like bloated, bubble-wrapped machines.
It doesn’t exercise restraint with features. A single character sheet has ten backstory elements in addition to abilities. The math powering everything, from dice to starting stats are so easy on the players they can sometimes suck the tension out of scenes.
Are you a design-minded player threatened by this? Does it make you envious of the Fate Core system with its polished rules and math? I understand, but don’t. Let’s look at the game’s theme again.
The setting is loose and campy. As I see it, the mechanics let you, the game master, throw whatever you want at the players. It’s forgiving and light-hearted the way a pulp game needs to be. Lots of games, like D&D, make challenging the characters without killing them a puzzle. But in Spirit you’ll be trying to break their nose with villains, waves of henchmen, and hostages. Remember: invincible characters are easier to solve than dead ones.
Buy or not buy?
It’s a must buy. Look at where it takes us.
Victor Frankenstein will be there, and the Green Hornet, and crime-fighting Nikola Tesla. They’ll be smoking cigars on the train, sharing whiskey tumblers with a hyper-intelligent ape, a deep sea diver, and a big game hunter with a steam-powered rail gun.
There are hundreds of games that scratch the itch for D&D and Tolkien. This one scratches the itch for pulp. There are others out there. Savage Worlds is an older, more popular example. Adventure is an original more seasoned gamers might remember. John Carter of Mars and the Conan: The Roleplaying Game are games about specific pulp characters and settings.
But none of them throw punches like the original magazines did. Spirit of the Century does. The rules and system are the most pulp-themed rules on the market. The presentation of the characters are the most honest embodiment of what they feel like when you flip through their pages today.
Until we have a hundred more, Spirit of the Century is the best RPG of the genre. I’ll fight with my back against the wall. This game is popcorn-munching fun. The best game to play with John Williams playing in the background. If you’re looking for the pulp action hero inside you, here it is. Don’t say hello. Say welcome back.
- The pulpiest rule-system on the market
- Fast and easy gameplay, truly “pickup”
- Surprising depth and breadth of options
- Nostalgic setting, but unique in gaming
- The pulp adventure theme is specific
- Source material is white, Eurocentric
- Bloated, unrefined, and older Fate rules
Buy it at your friendly local game store, the Evil Hat website, or clicking here on DriveThruRPG…
If you buy it on DriveThruRPG, I get a cut of your purchase to spend on coffee.