Review: Shadow of the Century

The very first example of Fate in play I ever heard was an absolutely over-the-top pulp melee recorded by Role Playing Public Radio. It’s hard to believe how long ago that was. Unfortunately, we’ve never managed to sit down and record any games of this work that’s cast such a long shadow, if you’ll pardon the pun, across the tabletop gaming landscape. We’ve played a lot of Fate over the years though, and loved it every time. So, it was with a fair measure of excitement and trepidation that we greeted the announcement of Shadow of the Century. Now, having sat down with the book and put a few hours into some very gonzo gameplay, I can say that the excitement was totally justified, and I think this game is a worthy descendant that captures an entirely new genre while remaining true to The Spirit of the Century.

It’s 1984 but bigger, flashier, more in your face and just plain weird. The time manipulations of Dr. Methuselah have scattered pieces of himself and a myriad of alternate timelines and dimensions through history. Things are getting weird wherever the collective will of a great many people aren’t stabilizing the universe. This means that all of the things that were staples of 80’s action movies are totally possible, and that’s just the beginning. Imagine if the Predator was actually a dinosaur and it was set in Eugene Oregon and instead of Arnold being a special forces badass, he was a traffic cop who had to team up with the school’s chess team and a robot from the future with a dog that solves mysteries….and well you get the idea. Our group for the game we streamed in preparation for this interview consisted of a thief who steals monuments, a shapeshifting trucker with a shapeshifting truck, a team of anthropomorphic bird ninjas with their own cartoon show, and the cop from pretty much every action movie of the period whose trademark move was to do splits while straddling two moving vehicles. It was an interesting night.

To help facilitate these hijinks, the authors have thoughtfully included world-building and character creation tools that help set the mood. Characters take on a few 80’s archetypes: a cop who’s also a brawler and a spy for instance. These roles come with skill boosts and a menu of premade stunts, although you can always elect to write your own. Skill distribution is handled differently in Shadow of the Century – each role has a set of skills you get one rank in, and if the skills double up between roles, you get two (or more) ranks. In addition, you get additional points to spend to buy more skills. Also, the stress track is no longer dependent on having ranks in certain skills, instead players can choose to distribute additional boxes of stress.

Players can also elect to build a gonzo character, one who possesses skills, attributes or some other extra bit of something that makes them even more special. They take on a gonzo role with stunts that only trigger when the Gonzometer (yes, that’s what it’s called) is elevated by things getting particularly out of hand. This system creates a really neat balance that’s a little more contextual than approaches like power levels in Dresden Files for instance, as it can respond to the scale of the situation and avoids your supernatural killing machine from just offing people for cutting him off in traffic, unless they pay a fate point of course.

Helping this more dynamic approach to character power levels along in letting players fully experience all their creations have to offer are some great new options for milestones. If you decide you’re running a movie instead of a series, basically a one-shot, you can have rising action and confrontation milestones at the story’s act breaks to make the characters a little more capable and let them recover for that final push to take out the bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys, Shadow of the Century does some cool things to streamline things for the GM. Running NPCs is eased by the use of Shadow Roles, similar to approaches that keep action moving quickly without just applying a flat bonus to everything the opposition does. Mobs are also more fluid, with different size bonuses and some discussion of combining or splitting up mobs. All in all, it was a very cool toolkit to play with that didn’t require much in the way of bookkeeping or page flipping.

There will be plenty of reason to flip through the pages though. This book is full of organizations, characters and weird things to happen to your 80’s action heroes. There are evil corporations, shadowy criminal syndicates, and more than your fair share of monsters. And just in case you don’t know what life was like in the 80s’s there’s an some explanation of what technology, commerce and life were like in the decade of Reganomics, SDI, MTV, and BBS.

I guess it’s pretty clear, but I’ll say it outright:  I think Shadow of the Century is a lot of fun. You should definitely check it out.

Shadow of the Century is available for purchase on the Evil Hat Website for $25 for the hardcover book and PDF.

Disclaimer: A free PDF copy of this product was provided by the publisher for this review. Aser and Megan ordered a hardcover copy of the book this morning.

Aser is a visually impaired attorney and assistive technology instructor that started playing RPGs shortly before the podcast's founding. He ran our games of The Strange and Night's Black Agents, and is an advocate for accessibility in gaming. His gaming interests tend towards mythos horror, investigation, espionage, and military role-playing games.

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