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Spirit of the Century - Rewarding Character Play vs Giving Effect to Character Play

Posted by grandexperiment on 2006.11.26 at 20:14
I realised something new over the weekend on reading Spirit of the Century. I think one of the reasons it resonates with me and in many ways fulfils the “want” I had when I first started exploring shared narration is due to the idea set out in my title.

The Grand Experiment
When I ran Exalted, it was heavily character driven. More so than any other RPG I had run at that point. Obviously, the players have a huge impact on getting their character across. However, as a GM, I spent a lot of my time giving effect to the players’ vision of the characters. This is a necessary part of a traditional style RPG as the GM determines everything beyond the PC’s intentions.

Toward the end of Exalted, the additional workload on me combined with a continuing lack of certainty as to whether I was hitting the beats (which were ultimately the players to decide) led me to look for another path. That path started with looking to shifting more authority to players to allow them to give full effect to their characters. I feel to an extent that this path came to an end with Burning Empires, where players are given very clear authority over their character and their characters’ stories.

However, BE ultimately failed to scratch my original itch. That is to give players the ability to give effect to their characters in a traditional RPG. BE grants the players the ability to give effect to character along with authority over their characters stories. As a result, it added a level of competition which, though fun in its own way, is not something that I originally wanted.

Then came along Spirit of the Century (SotC) and it opened a new path. Much of SotC looks like a traditional game on first blush. However, on closer examination, much of how it runs is quite different, in particular its use of aspects (see previous posts). This was highlighted to me on the weekend after I had just finished reading Hollow Earth Expedition (HEX) (another excellent though straight forward pulp game).

Reward Systems
SotC uses Fate points. They seem to work very similar to drama points, style points, artha and in a way stunt bonuses (found in Adventure!, HEX, Burning Wheel (BW) and Exalted respectively). However, I think there is something quite different in there. Though this is somewhat a generic summary, these reward systems, normally adjudicated by the GM, give bonuses for when a PC gives effect to their PC and the genre. For example, you do something in accordance with your motivation of flaw in HEX, you get style points. You play out the agony of going against your beliefs, you get artha in BW. You do an awesome “in genre” action, you get a stunt bonus. These systems are very much reward systems to get players to be consistent to their characters and act in genre.

You can then spend these points to do cool stuff a bonus, though this often not related to your character at all. For those that hate maths and Mash :), lets call this Y + Z = X where X is the bonus generated by Y and Z, Y is where you act consistent with your character and in genre, and Z is where you take on a complication that is consistent with your character and in genre. The GM ultimately decides the values for Y and Z based on the player’s performance.

I can see that there is a whole line of discussion that can be made in regard to who is the best person to adjudicate this reward system that I won’t go into here. It was recently highlighted in an intense discussion relating to Kapcon scoring where some people considered the GM clearly the correct person, where others equally intensely disagreed. Games like BW and PTA move this system to that of a group decision for good effect. However, I think there is a more important line of discussion to be made.

Spirit of the Century
In SotC, Fate points are awarded when a player accepts an “in character” complication as the player has defined for his character through his aspects. They are spent to do “in character” actions as that player has also defined for his character through his aspects. Though there are some similarities with the reward approach as seen above, my impression is that Fate points work altogether differently. Rather than rewarding in character behaviour, they give the player a resource to give effect to their own character’s “in character” behaviour.

A player is only able to get Fate points for agreeing to complications that are consistent with the character as created. Therefore, instead of Y + Z, you have just Z. The idea is that these are a fundamental part of your PC and by accepting them and having them feature in play they not only get you PC across but should be fun.

A player may spend Fate points (with a few exceptions) to give effect to in character actions. This is essentially a combination of X and Y, but really the focus is on Y. The more that a player has accepted his character’s faults and played that character out, the more the player gets to play out the cool parts of the characters.

So instead of Y + Z = X with the GM determining Y and Z, you get Z = Y (or Z = X + Y) with the player determining Z. Though the GM is the one to offer Z opportunities to the player, a player can choose not to be complicated and not receive a Fate point. This means that the player is able to ultimately make the decision and determine Y as well.

The end result is that in SotC the Fate point system is one in which the player gains ultimately control over giving effect to their character. The interaction between GM and player are two way and of the nature of an offer and acceptance, leaving the player in control. In most other reward systems, the GM adjudicates a players performance putting greater pressure on the GM. Though there are two sides to it, there is less interaction and it is of the nature of a one participant judging another.

One effect of this change is that in most reward system, the players are able to focus on Y (in character stuff) to achieve X (the bonus) and may ignore Z (in character complications). This puts additional pressure on the GM as the players want the GM pick up on all Y moments and the Z moments feel competitive.

In SotC, in character stuff is made up of both the good and bad stuff. The player has a say in Z to achieve X and Y. As such, the GM’s role is easier as they can make offers for Z as much as they want and leave it to the players to accept what to take and by doing so also allow the players to decide X. I can see the focus on character complications may not be appropriate for all genres but for pulp (amongst others) it works really well.

The End…apologies for the math :)
If I had SotC’s aspect and Fate point system in Exalted, I can honestly say that I would have had no issue with the game whatsoever. SotC looks very close to being the result I was originally looking for as it allows the players to give effect to their characters directly, without shifting the authority any wider and changing the traditional RPG structure.


Matt Cowens
mattcowens at 2006-11-27 23:16 (UTC) (Link)

Ummm, have I got this right?

So in SotC, you get bonuses for playing your character well, especially playing out their flaws. You can spend the bonuses to have cool stuff your character does be more effective.

This is different to Exalted, where you can do cool stuff to earn a (mechanical) bonus.

One of the things I find interesting in these sorts of systems is that describing 'stunts' or 'cool interesting stuff' is definitely a skill, one that I am not terribly good at. Interestingly, playing up character flaws and taking actions that are really bad for my character, but are in keeping with their motivations and limitations, is something I'm reasonably good at.

I think I'm going to enjoy SotC, though I will have to train myself up in describing pulp action sequences to make my character's actions commensurate with any bonuses accrued through acting weasely, or insecure, or short-sighted, or sceptical...
grandexperiment at 2006-11-28 00:37 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Ummm, have I got this right?

Yes. The more you play up the complications arising from the genre and character, the more you get to play up the cool stuff arising from the genre and character.

In Exalted, the GM grants you a bonus if you describe some cool in character/genre.

It seems almost guaranteed to play out like Debbie's recounting of the Mummy. A SotC game will be a series of OTT problems and obstacles (often player created) that the heroes must fight against and in turn this will fuel the more OTT action and awesome heroics of the heroes. It should feel like a run away train until the final climax where the heroes finally win through against all the odds.

To give an example of teh difference, I was recently reading an example of combat of a Big Game Hunter against a T Rex in Hollow Earth Expedition which has a very traditional rule set (cross between D20 and WW). The short of it is that the Big Game Hunter gets rolled because the T Rex is tougher in a fight. It ends on a cliff hanger of whether the Big Game Hunter will bleed to death or not before his friends get to him.

In SotC;

Player: "OK your T Rex has beat me. However, rather than taking the mauled and crippled consequence, I offer you a concession."

GM: Looks at the player suspiciously.

Player: "Yes, instead of being mauled and crippled, my PC blacks out and finds himself awakening on a bed of large soft round white boulders in a clearing."

GM: Looks more suspicious.

Player: "Getting up, his feet crack the boulder revealing a hungry new born 6ft T Rex. As he backs away, the other 8 boulders all shake and crack open."

GM:"Cool, I accept the concession. Oh and have a Fate point."

Player: "Great, I spend that Fate point to bring in my faithful African companion who was out searching for me nearby. Ooboobo can speak to animals."

GM: "Great, the T Rex says 'More meat! and looks happier."

Player: "Watch out Ooboobo, your presence seems to have enraged them! I will save you!"
grandexperiment at 2006-11-28 00:43 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Ummm, have I got this right?

A couple of clarifications:

- You only get Fate points for accepting or introducing complications, so you don't have to be good at describing cool stuff like in Exalted.

- You then spend those Fate points to do cool stuff. These have to be based around an Aspect, either your own, one in the scene or one on another person. As such, you have about 10 strong guidelines as to what kind of cool stuff your PC does before the game starts and can also take advantage of others as the game goes on.
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