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About Jabari in their own words: Jabari Weathers is an illustrator and game designer who currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland. They also are (apparently) under suspicion of being a goblin princet from beyond the veil. In order to keep up their glamor, they make art and narrative games for themselves.
You can help them maintain their human facade by checking out their artwork at jmwillustration.com and their game design work at lunarveil.press. If you wish to follow along with their more anecdotal adventures, they can be found on instagram (jmwillustration) and twitter (JabariWeathers).Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work? What project are you most proud of?
Hi Tracy, thanks for inviting me to do this with you! I’m a black, nonbinary scifi fantasy illustrator by day, and tabletop rpg/narrative game designer by night. I live in Baltimore and attended art school here (at MICA). Soon after I found myself making so many tarot cards for roleplaying game publishers. The work I’m most proud of in that regard is, in fact, split between making the 7th Sea Sortè deck art, and the Bluebeard’s Bride Tarot of Servants art. Both projects put together took 8 months for me to make the art for, which kind of scares me. As far as my game design work, I’m working on an epistolary game called A Dire Situation, which is essentially a really perverse game of telephone inspired by Dangerous Liaisons and other acidic period piece dramas. It’s a good time. You can follow my artwork at jmwillustration.com, my (announced) game design work at lunarveil.press, and me at twitter.com/JabariWeathers and instagram.com/jmwillustration~What themes do you like to emphasize in game work?
Existential tension, often the questions of identity and knowing who you are. I’m in a few different professional and creative circles that I simultaneously feel indebted to as far as my taste in media and interests, and feel not immediately welcome in, having to have carved a niche for myself within scifi/fantasy illustration and game design. I often try to find ways to take the kind of performative tension I feel as a POC in both circles and fold that into game design terms. It’s sort of like journaling. There’s a mechanic in A Dire Situation where everyone chooses a secret for another person’s character, but you don’t know what secret has been chosen for you specifically, even though your *character* is understood to be aware of the secret and you as a player get to see all of the available secrets that are in play at the table. The result is nobody is quite who they themselves think they are, and you end up having to question a lot about the entity you’re stepping into for the evening. I like trying to get people to question their fictional personas, anyway!How did you get into games? Who did you try to emulate in your career?
Actually I got into games through my mom, who played DnD when she was younger and never stopped consuming speculative fiction. She kinda just passed the genre interest on to me. I also grew up with cousins who played a LOT of video games with me, and eventually made my way toward titles that valued a kind of emergent design that tabletop RPGs are especially well suited for (for example, Thief, Deus Ex [I grew up with Invisible War and Deadly Shadows and played the earlier games in late high school and early college], Morrowind). In high school, my religion teacher (I went to an all boys Catholic high school), was really my first longstanding GM with 3.5, but I had been reading the books for a solid amount of time before that point. I don’t know if I tried to emulate any one person in my game design upon starting, but I did try to chase the same kind of player choice that Looking Glass Studios baked into their digital work (which they pulled from tabletop games in a lot of ways), as well as their interdisciplinary approach to game design. Look at Thief: The Dark Project against it’s contemporaries and you can tell that it was made by people interested in things outside of the industry that it was making an impact on. I love how Looking glass trusts it’s players and doesn’t hold their hand, instead giving them tools to let the experience emerge. I also love how their games had such odd and idiosyncratic approaches that really challenged the player. I still chase both things in the social landscape that tabletop RPGs create, and I really hope I make something that’s half as inspiring as that Looking Glass ethos was for me!
More recently, I’ve been owing a lot of the recent game design lessons learned to Marissa Kelly, Sarah Richardson and Whitney Beltran from Bluebeard’s Bride, and John Harper’s work on Blades in the Dark. The former is such an amazing study in how to get horror and tension to emerge, and how to bake unusual ceremony into a game. A lot of people are intimidated by it when they are used to simulationist style games, and many admirers of Bluebeard’s Bride also label it as “simple” mechanically, but there is *so* much happening in the social and emotional landscape of that game, so much that gets mechanized so eloquently. Every piece of vocabulary that the players (including the Groundskeeper) use is calibrated perfectly to the theme and discussions Bluebeard’s is meant to provoke. Blades does a wondrous amount of things with a swashbuckling setup by letting players pick the details of their abilities and tools on the fly, but making *everything* a resource management game. When some of those resources aren’t just ‘coin’ or ‘inventory’ but are ‘stress’, it becomes evocative in a game that I wish a lot of other action/adventure RPGs would be. Both also have a remarkable relationship to violence that ends up more nuanced than what I think the common examples of games present show to those not entrenched in the game community. I’ve been studying these both *very* closely, and trying to digest the things they’ve brought to my game brain rather deeply.Do you have any advice for others getting into the industry?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, and do so in person! I try to go to events because I meet people and make fast friends when in the flesh, and those are friendships I really cherish and feel enriched by. Also, don’t underestimate how much you as (not a designer) are valuable to game design! A lot of my best game design ideas come from me essentially abstracting the anxieties of my day to day life doing freelance and being worried about the world into game mechanics and procedures, or finding the particular joys of the media I consume and turning that into a game. A Dire Situation started as an attempt to capture the unique feeling of watching people read things they shouldn’t have access to, which I always enjoy seeing in films. Get weird with your ideas, someone will cherish it and you’ll get to know yourself better through that, and don’t be afraid to share yourself before you’re ‘polished enough’. This industry is so young, and I think a lot of people curtail the considerable wisdom they can bring to it because they aren’t established, but that’s the way that communities grow best, when people exert the best of themselves in the truest way they know.What do you think the most important things in gaming are right now?
That’s a huge question, and I’m afraid of my answer being too succinct to pin down a lot of the things that I think are valuable and important that are shifting in this medium and the community that fosters it. Right now, there’s a generation of designers and gamers that are pushing to be *way* more inclusive in this medium, which is amazing because it’s such an empathy builder. With that, we’re seeing a lot of games that are reflecting that wider spectrum of experiences and needs at a higher frequency, and seeing that it’s getting good and wide reception. Games like Bluebeard’s Bride, Star Crossed, Mutants in the Night, and BFF:Best Friends Forever are challenging questions of who’s stories are told, who’s perspectives are shared and what kind of exchange do we expect from such a social medium. As things move forward, I think that kind of willingness and encouragement to lean into new experiences without apologizing to established patterns of play and design is going to only help this community grow faster and stronger, even with the anticipated challenges. This medium is showing very explicitly that Joy isn’t just killing goblins, and Pain isn’t just the threat of being killed by goblins, and that kind of emotional honesty is pulling the industry into it’s teenage years.
This also comes with a greater call for accountability in our community as far as social safety. There’s a lot more discussion of missing stairs, safe tables, and supportive gatherings than I felt just a decade ago as a teenager. A lot of conduct has been pulled rather painfully into the light, a lot of social patterns are under intense scrutiny at our tables and in this industry, and I think that’s rightly so. Being in this world, much as I love it, can be so quietly, exhaustively bracing, and the people that make up this industry should feel able to assert what makes them feel safe and when they are threatened. People are actively doing this in games and in the community, and that’s amazing.What’s your most meaningful gaming experience?
Generally, one that has enough trust to get uncomfortable. One where I can lean into the vulnerabilities of characters, and embolden fellow players to do the same. I look for kind of emotionally intense, bracing media, and I love feeling that way (or provoking that feeling) in a game. I want my assumptions shaken up a little bit, and, assuming it’s navigated compassionately and safely, I value going to dark places in games. It pulls a lot of the horror and strife of my actual world into perspective. I generally like my fantasy to reflect my reality and give me the vocabulary and process to make it better, or at least see it more clearly. There’s nothing wrong with lighter fare, but this is what will get my attention reliably.What’s the most important change you could see occurring in the industry?
More than a few, but paying freelancers livable wages (even if it means shrinking the density of content) is the big one. There’s tons of ways to unpack this, and tons of reasons that workloads are overweighed and underpaid, many being unintentional for the majority of the market. In some ways, that’s made it even harder to check. The flipside is that I’ve had ADs in the industry say things along the lines of “artists take (RPG work) on as a hobby, nobody is doing this for full time work” and that sentiment really blew my mind. So many really talented artists spending so much time, money and effort perfecting craft and that’s a sentiment that’s we might be competing against when trying to navigate to a workable and healthy architecture of work. I think there’s a lot of wanting to do better on the business end, especially in indie RPGs, but the whole industry needs to (and is trying to) go through that learning process. The continued challenge to stick with those better principles I think is an instrumental change to the community’s sustainability.Anything else you want to add?
When practicing magic, make sure to add salt!
And thank you for your time, Tracy!
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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
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.Going Gonzo
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.Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
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!