While it is by no means an element unique to me, my earliest gaming memories are deeply intertwined with 80s media, given the time when I grew up. Freddy Krueger showed up in my Ghostbusters campaign, our group fought a Terminator when we played Mechwarrior, and I remember running to the basement to make up characters for a Top Secret S.I. game after watching a Rambo movie.
Shadow of the Century is a Fate Core supplement that moves the Spirit of the Century setting into the 1980s. It attempts to add all your 80s action movie and TV series tropes into a tabletop roleplaying game. I’ll admit up front, as much as I enjoy playing Fate based games, I never fully invested in Spirit of the Century. I am familiar, and have played with, a lot of pulp tropes, but I never felt confident enough to fully embrace the setting to run a game using the material.
How well does Shadow of the Century address the idea of running games in an 80s action movie setting? How well does it integrate these ideas into the existing Spirit of the Century setting? Let’s dive in and find out.
The Fate Core Manuscript
This review is based on the PDF of the product. The PDF is 214 pages long, with a page for the character sheet, and an Evil Hat ad, and a six-page index at the end.
The book has similar formatting to other Fate Core books, and the interior line art is full color. The style almost reminds me of the John Buscema/Tom Palmer artwork in the 80s Avengers comics, with less weight to the lines, but more lines for details in the art.
There is a clever tweaking to the standard Fate Core formatting, as the color choices and page numbers in the book are a nod to 80s design conventions, while the headers and structure still follow the established trade dress for Evil Hat.
The World We Live In
The opening chapter of the book has a brief summary of the established Spirit of the Century setting, then introduces the differences in the setting moving into the 80s, with elements that have changed between the original material and Shadow of the Century. All the broad elements mentioned in this introduction are further expanded upon later in the book, but it’s a good, quick explanation of the setting and how it relates to the earlier era.
In broad terms, the setting has moved from a handful of people born at the turn of the century to embody certain zeitgeist, with their own organization that opposes the World Crime League, to a setting where the old Spirits are hunted criminals, and the heroes come from all walks of life (expanding walks of life to accommodate for 80s action movie walks of life like wandering martial artists or lost time travelers).
Evil doesn’t all belong to the same over the top organization but is broken up across several (slightly less) over the top organizations that are deeply entrenched into politics and business across the world.
Also, it really sets the tone of the setting to know that Variable Hyperdimensional Simultaneity (VHS) is a term used to measure how much mathemagic has caused time and space to be warped.
The Pitch Session
Something that is often a strength of Fate products is that the themes and structures of the campaign are often explicitly spelled out at the beginning of the campaign. While many games will have sections that discuss setting expectations and getting buy-in, Fate products often mechanize this step in a very specific way, and Shadow of the Century continues this tradition.
In Shadow of the Century, the group will be making decisions on what kind of structure the campaign has, following the structure of a movie or a series. This will create a different feeling and will trigger different advice. There are actually a few rules presented in the game that differ based on this decision as well.
The group will then collaboratively decide on “the Man,” which is one of the entrenched group of villains that their story will involve. The group will come up with issues (which have different guidelines based on series versus movies), cast members, and villains. It is important to note that all of this happens before the players make their characters.
Phase Six: Heroes I’m calling this section out specifically, because there are a few differences between how you create Shadow of the Century characters and Fate Core characters. While it doesn’t use the 1 for 1 stress boxes that some more recent Fate releases have used, extra stress boxes aren’t granted for skills, but can be purchased during character creation. While characters have a Trouble, a Call to Action, a War Story, and a Team-Up aspect, the last two aspects are called out as aspects that can be created in play later. This addresses some of the aspect overload that Fate Core introduces with its default character creation.
It’s also worth noting that there is a full-page discussion on 80s characters and the overreliance on cis white male heroes. It’s a call to action to keep the fun, crazy things from all the 80s stories you are emulating, but to do a better job of including marginalized people in important, and starring, roles.
Who Are You, And What Do You Do?
Shadow of the Century also introduces roles for characters. Those roles all have specific stunts that play into the overall theme of that role. The roles introduced in this chapter include the following:
- The Brain
- The Brawler
- The Cop
- The Detective
- The Dilettante
- The Face
- The Hacker
- The Inventor
- The Leader
- The Ninja
- The Saboteur
- The Soldier
- The Spy
- The Thief
- The Warrior
- The Wheelman
Cue Hair Metal Anthem
This is the section of the book that introduces the rules that surround montages. The Ad-Mon-Tage, the Challenge Montage, and the Milestone Montage all have separate rules.
An Ad-Mon-Tage is a montage used to generate a bunch of free invokes on aspects that revolve around getting ready for a specific known threat. The Challenge Montage is similar to some of the group check rules in Fate Core, where characters are trying to do “something” narratively, and the number of successes from the PCs engaging in their montage determines how well that “thing” gets resolved.
The Milestone Montage involves punching beef so that you can borrow the benefits of your next milestone to use for a confrontation. Figuratively speaking. Or maybe literally. I’m not going to tell you how to montage.
This chapter introduces the Gonzometer, the Gonzometer level, and Gonzo feats. It also touches on creating a Centurion, the special characters that have previously existed in the setting, and who operate on a special level no matter what the Gonzometer is in the current scene.
The Gonzometer can be set from 1 to 3, with 1 being the over the top, but not quite supernatural level that a lot of 80s action movies and TV series portray. You might have a talking car (which is totally justifiable by science, if you think about it), but aliens and magic may not be an element. At 2, more fantasy and sci-fi elements may show up, but those elements are noteworthy. At Gonzometer 3, everything is crazy.
Characters can be Gonzo characters and spend their feats to build Gonzo feats to play into that theme. Gonzo feats have different levels, and if the Gonzometer of the current scene is lower than the tier of effects that you are attempting to use from your Gonzo feat, you must spend Fate points to make up the difference to trigger the effect.
Gonzo feats and how they interact with characters showcase one of the biggest strengths and biggest challenges of Fate based games. There is an example Gonzo feat, and a lot of advice on how to build Gonzo feats, but a lot is left up to the player and the GM to custom build for the character concept. That is both great, from a character customization standpoint, and challenging for people that don’t feel they have system mastery of Fate enough to “balance” the tiers of their stunt.
Your Character Goes to 11
The next chapter of the book addresses character advancement. This involves the standard Fate concept of Milestones, but exactly what can change will vary, and there are different sets of Milestones for episodes, movies, crescendo milestones, season finales, rising action, and confrontation. There are also milestones introduced for villains and Methuselah Fragments.
That all probably sounds more complicated that it is. The episode milestones are generally minor milestones. Crescendo milestones are important, goal-based milestones. Season finale milestones are important milestones that are triggered by closing out a season arc, while rising action and confrontation only come up in movies, being triggered when characters realize who they are fighting, and when they get ready to bear down on their final fight.
Villain milestones track how the organization’s goals are progressing, and if one of their goals is no longer attainable. Depending on how things progress for the organization, it may change in scale, and if it’s low enough when the villains drop in scale, the villain organization disperses.
Methuselah Fragments go into one of my favorite aspects of the setting. Doctor Methuselah is a character that has rewritten reality multiple times to maintain his immortality. This has resulted in fragments from other realities that he has overwritten to appear from time to time, causing weird rifts and changes, and it also means that there are multiple versions of Doctor Methuselah in the setting. The Methuselah Fragment milestones are only used if this plot element is a major part of the campaign and tracks how reality is warping and changing based on who has interacted with one of these fragments.
Say Hello to Our Little Friends
The next chapter of the book addresses how to stat out extras, mooks, mobs, lieutenants, shadows, NPC Spirits and New Wave Heroes, and monsters. In addition to the descriptions on how to stat these different style characters, there is advice on the actual purpose of the different types of characters and how they should be used.
One of my favorite parts of this chapter is the roles for the Shadows. The Shadows are the leaders of the evil organizations in the setting. The Shadows all have the following roles instead of individual skills:
It’s a nod to an 80s trope where supervillains are almost always omnicompetent. If you are awesome enough to run an evil villain organization, you are at least moderately competent at all these roles. Business leaders know what their scientists are talking about and know how to shoot people in the head. Ninja masters know super science. Mega-criminals know how do use military grade hardware. It’s so 80s.
Bringing the ‘80s to the Max!
This chapter touches base on 80s-based themes and what exactly from the 80s the game is trying to capture. I like this, because it is very easy to think that your nostalgia or knowledge of an existing period is going to carry you through portraying an era. It is much better to make sure that everyone is on the same page about the tropes and themes that are specifically being addressed.
In addition to discussing the tropes that are at play in the setting, I enjoyed the idea that it examines lots of these tropes both from a generally positive side, and from a more destructive, problematic direction.
Something Strange in the Neighborhood
I tend to like when core rulebooks or setting books have a sample adventure, because I like the example of how the designers expect the game to work. One place where Fate products often shine is that, instead of having a sample adventure, they often have adventure ideas and described campaign arcs. While not as fleshed out as a sample adventure, getting more of these outlines provides more of an idea what types of one-shots and campaigns play to the intended design of the setting.
In Shadow of the Century, we get about nine different paragraph-long ideas for one-shot adventures, as well as three campaign frames — general ideas for who the PCs are and what they would do over time. The example campaigns are:
- Team Black (with a general A-Team vibe)
- The Sentinels of Science (with strong Buckaroo Banzai overtones)
- Anna and the Kareninas (Sort of Jem/Josie and the Pussycats with Robin Hood overtones)
The campaign frames provide sample characters as well, so it’s possible to just take the pre-generated characters and run with it. They are a few examples of Gonzo stunts with some of the sample characters, and kudos for using the term “synergy” on the character sheet for one of the Anna and the Kareninas characters.
The Greater Universe
This chapter dives much deeper into the lore of the setting, how it connects with Spirit of the Century, and how various moving pieces fit together with other moving pieces. It provides a lot of inspiration, but given the assumed campaign structures, it’s not mandatory that anyone fully engage all the deep lore and interplay going on in this chapter.
One thing I will say up front — given the idea of Doctor Methuselah and the multiple alternate realities and reality fragments, I love the idea that you can’t have continuity errors. I mean, you can, but you can also just say “Methuselah Fragment” and get on with your day.
Overall, the villains belong to one of the following broad groups:
- The Kroll’X (aliens from another dimension)
- The Gentlemen’s Agreement (various crime organizations that don’t exactly work together, but agree to not get in one another’s way)
- The New Science Party (Evil politicians—It’s not always redundant to say it that way)
- The Board (Mega-corporations with agreements to carve up global markets and control everything through commerce and consumerism)
This chapter also introduces the Golden Seeds, organizations that might be helpful to the PCs, and carry on some of the legacies of the Centurions but may also serve as rivals or opponents if the PCs don’t oppose The Man the way their organization would prefer.
In addition to introducing the broad elements of all these groups, there are individual crime families, corporations, and sub-groups discussed, which can help to point GMs towards which elements of that faction are the most useful for their campaigns, and to hint at inter-group rivalries that can be played up in longer form series.
Pick Your Poison
This chapter is filled with example characters that can be used as pre-generated PCs for a Shadow of the Century game. Beyond their skills and stunts, they only have a High Concept and a Trouble, leaving several aspects to be filled in, and none of a specific history or name assigned to them. The archetypes presented are:
- Army of One
- Coolest Kid in School
- Earthbound Alien
- Fugitive Android
- Loose Canon
- Martial Artist
- Sorcerer for Hire
- Teenage Werewolf
- Time Rider
- Unlikely Chosen One
The Earthbound Alien, Fugitive Android, Sorcerer for Hire, Teenage Werewolf, Time Rider, and Unlikely Chosen One include a few more examples of Gonzo stunts, for people that want them. It’s also easy to mix and match these pregens with the more fleshed out characters in the campaign frames, to have a good range of pregens to jump in and play with the setting, necessitating less work on the front end.
Be Excellent to One AnotherShadow of the Century does a great job, not only with invoking nostalgia, but with defining what the setting is about, and what tropes are at play. It provides villains and organizations that are both suitably 80s, and iconically vile.
Shadow of the Century does a great job, not only with invoking nostalgia, but with defining what the setting is about, and what tropes are at play. It provides villains and organizations that are both suitably 80s, and iconically vile. It does the work of helping the table set up the overall campaign and provides tweaks to Fate Core to play to the pacing and themes present in the setting.
I Know You Are, But What Am I?
While I don’t think these things are bad, overall, Shadow of the Century still retains some elements that I have seen beginning Fate players struggle with, such as custom-building stunts, and retaining different value stress boxes. While it specifically calls out the less inclusive elements of 80s media and entreats the table to avoid these, there isn’t a specific safety section in the book, and for the era where R rated cinema was deeply entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist, that may have been a worthwhile section to include.
Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I freely admit that this might be due to the circumstances of my birth, but I am way more invested in this period of the setting than Spirit of the Century. I generally enjoy pulp tropes, but I think the idea of passing the torch from the golden age to a more jaded “modern” era really resonates.
I think this is a solid, broadly appealing Fate supplement, but in addition to that, it is a great overall sourcebook for a general 80s action setting, which even non-Fate players may enjoy reading. Unless you have no use for any 80s based campaign elements, or more modern action-based roleplaying, I think this purchase is going to have value for anyone picking it up.
What eras do you think would make for great gaming? What tropes define those eras, and what kind of campaigns would you picture for those timeframes? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!