Spirit of the 18th Century: A Gothic Romance Hack For SotC
Spirit of the 18th Century
This is rules hack for Spirit of the Century (for completeness the OGL is included at the end of this page) to facilitate the creation of stories like those found in the Gothic romances of the late 18th Century. If you are unfamiliar with the genre I suggest reading The Castle of Otronto, The Monk, The Romance of the Forest, Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer. For a great look at the post-18th Century Gothic tradition, I can not recommend The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales highly enough. Also, this is pretty extreme rules hack. You have been warned.
In the gothic romance the villain is always a major figure. Sometimes the villain is central to the point of being really a tragic protagonist (Manfred in Castle of Otronto or Alphonso in The Monk). In this game the villain walks that borderland by basically being the GM’s PC. Although controlled by the GM the villain is still sketched out collaboratively by the group and is the first formal process of play.
Begin by sketching out a general idea for the villain. In the source material the villain is usually a male noble of foreign (to England) birth. That’s not required here. All that is required is that the villain be a driven individual with the means to pursue his drives almost to the exclusion of all other concerns.
Mechanically the villain starts out as two Aspects and one Trait (Sot18thC’s replacement for Skills). The two Aspects must represent what the villain covets. The love of a lady? Recognition? Money? His rivals lands? An heir? What is the villain after?
The villain also gets one Trait rated at Great (+4). Traits are Sot18thC’s replacement for Skills in SotC. Traits can be anything of thematic importance to the character. In that regard they are much more similar to Aspects. Indeed anything that makes a good Aspect probably makes a good Trait. The real difference is that Aspects are fixed and don’t change and Traits will have the opportunity to be replaced and shuffled around (more on that later). Also Aspects trace the progress of the character’s story arc while Traits represent the immediate story priorities of the character.
Once you have this sketch of the villain it’s time for the players to create their heroes and heroines. Like the villain, mechanically heroes and heroines start out with two Aspects and one Trait rated at Great (+4). Unlike the villain, however, the two Aspects must represent the Hero or Heroine’s Virtues (i.e. what makes them good and honorable people). Like villains, the Trait represents anything of immediate thematic importance to the character.
In addition to the two Aspects and the Trait the players must answer one of the following questions. How does your character stand in the way of what the villain covets? OR In what unwanted way can your character be used by the villain to obtain what he covets? If you’re feeling particularly sadistic towards your character you can answer both questions.
Finally, each player starts the game with two Fate points (one for each Aspect).
Fleshing Out, Redefining and Shuffling Traits
The heroes, heroines and the villain have space for nine more traits; two at Good (+3), three at Fair (+2) and four at Average (+1). At any point a player may simply fill in a blank Trait for his or her character. The GM gets to fill in the villain’s Traits. This is called Fleshing Out the character’s Traits.
However a player may also Redefine his character’s Traits by spending Fate points. To redefine a Trait simply pay a number of Fate points equal to it’s rating. In other words it costs four fate points to redefine your Great Trait, three Fate points to redefine your Good Traits and so on.
Finally a player may Shuffle his character’s Traits. Shuffling a Trait means swapping the ratings of two already existing Traits. To Shuffle two traits pay the difference between their ratings in Fate points. For example it costs three Fate points to swap the character’s Great Trait with an Average Trait. This merely rearranges their placement in the pyramid. You always have ten Traits in the Great, Good, Good, Fair, Fair, Fair, Average, Average, Average, Average pattern.
Just remember that Traits represent the character’s immediate thematic priorities.
The villain follows slightly different rules for Shuffling and Redefining Traits. Since the villain need not track Fate points separately (he has an infinite supply) The GM may only Shuffle and Redefine the villain’s traits just before rolling dice in a conflict. The GM then pays the Fate point cost to the player engaged in the conflict. If there is more than one player involved in the conflict the Fate points are divided as evenly possible with any odd counters going to the player with the least Fate points.
Aspects & Story Arcs
In Spirit of the 18th Century Aspects track your character’s story arc. Like Traits players are free to add to their Aspect list whenever they like. However, the aspect list must follow a very specific progression.
After the starting two Virtues the next two Aspects must reflect what tempts the character away from his Virtues. The two Aspects after those must reveal what exhausts the character and pushes him towards giving up his pursuits or falling to his temptations. The next two Aspects represent the character’s fall to corruption and must express his darkest elements. The final two Aspects represent the character’s redemption from the previous corruption. That’s it. The player maxes out at ten Aspects.
Once an Aspect has been defined it can be Invoked, Tagged and Compelled as usual. Also the player earns a Fate point as soon as the Aspect is defined. As stated the player may fill these in at any time but must define them in the exact order described. However, there are a few good reasons why the player won’t want to fill them in all at once.
The first reason is that unlike core SotC the Stress track does not refresh between scenes. Defining a new Aspect empties the Stress track. The second reason is that once a character has a single Corruption Aspect or beyond if he is ever Taken Out in a conflict he is permanently removed from the game. Finally, once a character defines a Redemption aspect he can no longer Invoke his Temptation, Exhaustion or Corruption Aspects. However, they can still be Tagged or Compelled but the player earns no Fate when they are. Yeah, Redemption is hard.
The villain follows a different Aspect progression track. After the first two covet Aspects his next two Aspects must define what powers him. The two after that must define his master plan. The next two reveal his fatal flaws. The last two reveal his darkest secrets. Unlike players all ten of the villains Aspects must be defined before he can be permanently Taken Out of the story.
Spending Fate Points
Fate points in Spirit of the 18th Century can accomplish seven things.
Earn a straight up +1 on a die roll.
Invoke your own Aspect or Tag an Aspect that belongs to something else either to re-roll or the dice or add a +2 to the roll.
Compel an Aspect to restrict a character’s behavior (yes, players can compel each other’s and the villain’s Aspects).
Resist a Compel.
Shuffle or Redefine Traits on the point buy system described earlier.
Annul a conflict by deepening The Mystery (this is explained later).
Create a Temporary Aspect that lasts until it is Invoked by you. It can be Tagged or Compelled freely until then and you don’t earn the Fate point for it.
Earning Fate Points
You earn a Fate point:
When your Aspect is Compelled OR Tagged (This is not true for Temporary or Lasting Aspects).
When the villain Redefines or Shuffles his Traits.
When you define a new Aspect progressing your Story Arc.
Scenes & Conflict
A distinction must be made between Requesting a Scene and Framing a Scene. Any player may Request a scene but the GM always Frames the scene. When Requesting a scene the player states what elements he’d like in the scene, characters, time, place, general goings on, etc. The GM then Frames the scene by establishing those elements and adding any others. The GM is also allowed to deny a player’s request and Frame a scene of his own preference. This is a rare occurrence, however.
It should be noted that all elements in a scene that ever take pro-active action are always acting in either a hero/heroine’s interests or the villain’s interests. Characters who are acting in the interests of the hero or heroine are narrated by that player. Characters who are acting in the interest of the villain are narrated by the GM. The GM is allowed to co-opt a player controlled NPC if suddenly their agenda starts serving the villain. That power doesn’t flow the other way.
This makes it possible to have scenes that do not directly involve the heroes, heroines or villains. It is perfectly legit to frame a scene that’s about the hero’s daughter confronting the villain’s vile henchman. They key here is that if a conflict arises these character’s actions are represented by the Traits, Aspects and Dice of the players whose interest they serve. More on this later.
Once a scene is established go ahead and role-play the scene out with as much narrative or thespian detail as you would like. If a conflict of interest arises among the characters within the scene use the following rules to resolve the conflict. This need not end the scene. The scene ends according to the aesthetic standards of those participating in the scene.
It should be noted that the following replaces the ENTIRETY of the base SotC system. There are no Maneuvers or Stunts or Supplementary Actions or Minions or Groups. There is only what is provided here.
First decide which type of conflict is at hand: Oppositional or Orthogonal. Oppositional Conflicts are when a character is trying to achieve something and another character is merely trying to stop them. There are only two outcomes in an Oppositional Conflict. Either the acting character gets what he wants or he doesn’t. While this may seem bland remember that a conflict can not simply be repeated so failure at an oppositional conflict cuts the acting player off from a course of action.
Orthogonal Conflicts are what happens when two or more characters are taking actions which may interfere with one another. In a two person Orthogonal Conflict there four possible outcomes. Either character gets what he wants, neither character gets what he wants or both gets what he wants.
A subtle point: It is sometimes beneficial to treat an Oppositional Conflict as an Orthogonal one if there is likely to be an immediate follow up conflict. For example imagine that Alice is shooting Bob and Bob simply wants to duck for cover. This may seem like an Oppositional Conflict. Alice wants to shoot Bob and Bob simply wants to not be shot. However, since it is unlikely that Alice will stop trying to hurt Bob if she misses it may be useful to know whether Bob makes it to cover or not regardless of whether or not he gets shot. In these cases treat the situation like an Orthogonal Conflict.
A few other thing: All conflicts are resolved via opposed die rolls. There are no Difficulties or Target Numbers. Shifts are the difference between the two rolls. There is only one Stress track and it is ten boxes instead of five. Stress rolls up as usual if it hits the same box more than once. Consequences follow the same mild, moderate and severe pattern. After the the third Consequence the player is Taken Out (more on this later). As stated earlier Stress does not go away at the end of the scene.
Resolving Oppositional Conflict
Both sides roll 4dF as a base. The defender gains an automatic +2. A player may apply ONE and only ONE of his Traits if it’s appropriate. However it should be noted that if a player applies one of his Traits or Invokes one of his Aspects (but not if he Tags something else’s Aspect) then he becomes vulnerable to Stress even if he is rolling for an NPC (which as stated earlier is just acting in his interests).
The dice are rolled. The character represented by player who rolls the highest total gets his way.
Next calculate Shifts by subtracting the loser’s roll from the winner’s roll. There are three things you can do with Shifts and you can divide your Shifts between them.
By spending two shifts you can create a Lasting Situation Aspect that persists until the end of the scene. This is a double edged sword as it can be Tagged by anyone (and you don’t earn the Fate point for that).
Shifts can be turned into Bumps on a one to one basis. Bumps let you raise a die that came up minus or zero by one value on an immediate follow up conflict. You can use two bumps to raise a minus to a plus. If there is no immediate follow up conflict Bumps are lost.
Finally Shifts can be converted directly into Stress. However, the defender in an oppositional conflict can not inflict Stress but can use either of the two previous options.
Resolving Orthogonal Conflict
Everyone states what action they are taking, freely and openly in any order. People can change their action based on what others say. However, once the dice are rolled everyone is committed to their course of action and can not change or abort it.
Again everyone involved rolls a base 4dF. Anyone taking a purely defensive action gains an automatic +2. Again you can apply ONE and only ONE Trait to the roll. And Again if you apply a Trait or Invoke your own Aspect you become vulnerable to Stress.
However, actions are resolved from highest total roll to lowest total roll. Ties being broken by who rolled the most pluses, then the most zeros then the most minuses, and finally by the highest Trait used. If that is all tied then it goes to a Fate point bidding war.
Anyone who is affected by the current action gets to roll defense. However, if their own action has not happened yet they only get to roll paired canceling dice and dice showing zero from their original action roll. For example if the player rolled, -, +, 0, + then he would roll three dice for his defense. If the player has already had his action he rolls all four of his dice for his defense. If the player used a Trait in his original roll then this defense roll is added to that original Trait. If no Trait was used for the action, no Trait can be applied now. However, Invoking and Tagging Aspects is just fine.
As each action occurs determine the outcome. The higher roll succeeds in each case. Also calculate Shifts which again can accomplish three things and can be distributed across any combination of these three things.
By spending two shifts you can create a Lasting Situation Aspect that persists until the end of the scene. This is a double edged sword as it can be Tagged by anyone (and you don’t earn the Fate point for that).
Shifts can be turned into Bumps on a one to one basis. Bumps let you raise a die that came up minus or zero by one value on an immediate follow up conflict. You can use two bumps to move a die from a minus to a plus. If there is no immediate follow up conflict Bumps are lost.
Finally Shifts can be converted directly into Stress. However, anyone taking a purely defensive action can not inflict Stress but can use either of the two previous options.
Multiple Characters Acting In Someone’s Interest
Earlier it was stated that it was possible to have scenes that do not feature the heroes, heroines or the villain but that any character taking pro-active action in these scenes were to be considered acting in the interest of the heroes, heroines or the villain. When one of these characters is acting in the interests of a given player’s (including the GM’s) character then that player rolls dice, uses their Traits and Aspects and takes the Stress for the outcome.
If there are MULTIPLE such characters then roll separate dice for each. The only caveat is that you can not apply the same Trait to two characters rolling simultaneously. If only one Trait is applicable to the situation then you have to choose which character ‘s dice the Trait is helping. Similarly when you Invoke an Aspect you have to decide which roll you are affecting, you can’t affect both and you can’t Invoke the same aspect multiple times in the round of die rolls.
Being Taken Out
When a player is Taken Out (by taking a Consequence beyond severe) he has a choice. He can either have his character exit the story permanently or have the GM frame his next set of circumstances. He might very well end up in the villain’s dungeon but the GM might also kill his girlfriend. His Stress track also empties when he is Taken Out. Thus it is possible to play the unwavering hero who never compromises his Virtues but the character is likely to suffer for it… A LOT.
The exception to this is if the character’s Aspects have progressed into Corruption. If the character has his first or Corruption Aspect or beyond he MUST exit the story permanently if he is taken out. The player shouldn’t worry about this because even if his character is taken out he continues to play in a special manner (described in a moment).
The villain is only ever Taken Out permanently if all ten of his Aspects have been defined. Until then he is only Set Back. However, when he is Set Back he MUST define his next Aspect and his Stress track refreshes.
So while this power struggle between hero and villain is going on something else is going on as well. That something else is called The Mystery. This mystery may or may not have anything to do with heroes, heroines or the villain. For the ultimate in disconnected mystery I suggest reading The Mysteries of Uldopho. In any event here’s how The Mystery works.
By spending a Fate point a player can immediately annul a conflict at any point no matter how complex or at what point in the resolution system. In the fiction this annulment is represented by an event that reveals part of The Mystery and interrupts the scene. Maybe ghosts show up, or someone falls through a secret door or all of a sudden the lights go out and a shadowy figure is seen running along the balcony.
Based on whatever interrupts the conflict at hand a new Aspect is added to The Mystery. This Aspect can be Tagged like any other Aspect thus reinforcing previous elements of The Mystery. Like heroes, heroines and the villain The Mystery is limited to ten Aspects. However, there is no obligatory order to these aspects with one exception. The tenth Mystery Aspect is called “The Horrible Truth.” The player who defines it must make sense of all the previous Aspects and explain how they add up to the tenth one. The tenth Aspect is the shocking reveal behind The Mystery.
In addition to stopping the conflict and ending the scene, adding to The Mystery does a few other extremely powerful things. It empties the Stress track of anyone who was involved in the annulled conflict and removes any and all Consequences they had accumulated. Pretty powerful stuff, right? So what’s the catch?
Remember when I said that if a player’s character is permanently taken out of the story they don’t stop playing? That’s because they now play Doom. Doom is not a character. It’s a concept. Here’s how Doom works.
Doom has all the Aspects of all the character’s who have been permanently removed from the story. Here’s where Traits being the same as Aspects pays off.
Doom’s Traits are the Aspects attached to The Mystery. Starting with “The Horrible Truth” and going backwards up the list assign the standard pyramid of ranks. “The Horrible Truth” is Great (+4) the Trait above it is Good (+3) and so on.
Doom may not Flesh Out, Reassign or Shuffle his Traits. If there are Doom players before The Mystery is fully fleshed out it continues to be fleshed out using the annulment method described above.
Players may continue to Tag Doom’s Traits as Aspects and the Fate point goes to the Doom player with the least Fate points.
Doom’s Traits may also be Compelled as Aspects to make any scene element representing Doom’s interests do something. Any Doom player may buy off the compel. If the compel is not bought off the Fate point again goes to the Doom player with the lowest Fate points.
Doom does have a Stress track and can be Taken Out but this only represents holding Doom at bay. The forces of Doom are removed from the scene in some manner and Doom’s Stress track is reset.
Doom doesn’t care about the interests of anyone but Doom. Give ’em all hell.
How To Play Doom
The easiest way to play Doom is to have elements of The Mystery show up and start causing problems in the character’s lives. However, ANYTHING can be an agent of Doom. Have the building suddenly collapse, or a fire break out or an agent of the law suddenly get on the villain’s trail. Whatever makes things worse for all the characters still standing. Declare actions for these things as if they were pro-active thinking characters and roll dice for them.
It should be noted that the GM still retains scene framing rights. Doom players however may insert any element they wish into a scene and that element is presumed to be serving the interests of Doom. That element is also narrated and controlled by the Doom player who introduced it. That Doom player also rolls on its behalf in conflicts.
How To End The Game
The game ends when the villain is permanently Taken Out of the story. Notice that this can happen under two rather different circumstances. The first is when there is one or more heroes or heroines left standing. Yay for them! Narrate epilogues for those characters.
The second happens when the villain manages to sustain himself past ALL the heroes and villains and then eventually succumbs to Doom. Congratulations this villain is one of those unique villains-as-protagonists I mentioned at the start of the game, enjoy his demise.
Rules for the Novella
As written this game will likely last several sessions and produce a pretty hefty gothic novel. If you’d like to try for a novella simply reduce all Aspect lists from ten to five and similarly reduce the Stress tracks from ten to five. Similarly reduce the Trait pyramids down to five and start the top at Good (+3).
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“Finally, once a character defines a Redemption aspect he can no longer Invoke his Temptation, Exhaustion or Corruption Aspects. However, they can still be Tagged or Compelled but the player earns no Fate when they are.”
Forgive my trad-bound thinking, but what’s to prevent the GM from draining everyone dry of Fate Points and playing puppetmaster with their characters? It seems a little broken to essentially render three of your aspects useless — you can’t invoke them, and there’s no payoff for the compel.
February 27, 2009 at 1:51 am
Fictional context matters and I think is undervalued in wider gamer culture as a functional limiter on some rules applications. I don’t think the GM could bleed a player dry without seriously stretching the credibility of the fiction. But even if he could there are a few other considerations.
If a player is all the way into his Redemption Aspects then we’re very near end game. If there isn’t a Doom player active there soon will be if the GM is really draining a player in the manner you description. Doom players are effectively additional GMs and in some capacities they’re more powerful than the GM. They likely will keep the GM in check.
After thinking about it what you’re describing could almost be considered a genre convention. Heroes and Heroines in the literature are often very ineffectual. Their character defining “choices” are often based on denying the temptation to do otherwise perfectly reasonable things because it wouldn’t be “proper.” This is especially true in the works of Ann Radcliffe.
For example, in The Mysteries of Udolpho the hero proposes to the heroine that they run away together and elope. He promises that he could care for her and keep her safe from the villain. She refuses because it wouldn’t be proper to get married without her guardian’s permission. Here’s the thing: Her guardian IS the villain who earlier in the fiction *murdered* her aunt and is openly scheming to steal her property rights likely through forcible marriage. And yet, sigh, it wouldn’t be “proper” TO RUN AWAY!
That was my thinking behind never HAVING to advance your plot. You’re quite welcome to stick to your Virtue Aspect. The cost is that you will be repeatedly Taken Out, over and over and over again. This potential to becoming a puppet seems in line with the same underlying principle.
I still don’t think it will actually happen. But I haven’t played it, so I don’t know.
February 27, 2009 at 3:41 am