Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Spirit of 77 RPG - Can You Dig It?

Part of adolescence in the '80s, for myself at least, was resenting the '70s.  The previous decade was old and tired, the current one was fresh and new; wall-to-wall orange shag and dinosaur rock was played out, Nagel posters and new wave were in.

Still, the veneer of nostalgia smooths out the rough patches and adds a playful shine that makes a lot of things more appealing the further we get away from them, and the '70s are no exception.  This summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past took us back there, as did the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy.  Even before that, hip directors reminded us how intrinsically cool this era was at times, from Kevin Smith's Burt Reynolds references to Quentin Tarantino and...well, most of everything he's done, I suppose, except maybe Inglorious Basterds.  Aided by these worthies, as well as lovingly crafted spoof films like Black Dynamite, I have started to discover a long simmering affection for the decade of my childhood, a time of Steve Austin and Evel Knievel, Bruce Lee and the General Lee, Shirley Jones and Black Belt Jones.

So when I saw a crowdfunding initiative for a tabletop role-playing game set in a bigger and badder, alt-history 1970s called Spirit of 77, I got pretty excited. So much so, in fact, that I backed a Kickstarter for the first time.

Now, I don't do a lot of role-play; we get together 7-8 times a year to play a little D&D (and have for the past, gawd, five years?!?), but our nerdy circle's primary gaming mode is boardgames, cardgames, wargames and suchlike.  The very last thing I need is another role-playing rules set I am not going to play.

And yet, I went and plunked down $30 so I can get a hard copy of the rules when they get published next spring.  And I'm already starting to think up storylines and character ideas.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

First and foremost, as much fun as fighting monsters, taking their treasure, getting better gear and leveling up is, there isn't much of a narrative to it.  I could attribute some of this to the limitations of the 4th edition D&D rules, but if I'm honest with myself, it wouldn't be too hard for me to layer on a bit more story and to get more creative.  

But it does take time, and the combats do take a while to resolve, even if they are fun. In the end, it is just far easier to use pre-written adventures with their glossy battlemaps, and play it somewhere between the tactical and the theatrical.  

The mechanics of Spirit of 77 (adapted from a ruleset called Apocalypse World) lean much more heavily towards narrative and simplicity.  All results are derived from rolling two everyday, six-sided dice, and adding a single modifier: on a 10 or higher, the character succeeds; on a 7-9, they do it, but not as well they would have liked, or with a cost.  On a 6 or less, the attempt failed, and the consequences play out.  Since we learn as much from our mistakes as our failures, failing a task actually earns the character an experience point, which is a neat approach to character improvement.  A single dice roll works out whether you backhanded the villain, or put a beatdown on an entire gang.  Keeping the focus on story advancement as opposed to leveling up, and the techniques they use to keep the players involved collaboratively, has a lot of appeal to me.

Characters can be summed up in three characteristics: their Story, their Role and their Buzz, and they demonstrate this with quite a few famous characters from the period:
  • Billy Jack is a Tough Guy and Former Vet, looking for Peace of Mind.
  • Foxy Brown is a Vigilante who's One Bad Mother, looking for Payback.
  • The Baseball Furies are Boppers with Glam, looking for Respect.
  • Jim Rockford is a Sleuth who's an Ex-Con, looking for Cold, Hard Cash.
  • The Bandit is a Good Old Boy with Humble Beginnings, looking for Fame and Glory.
There is a lot to be said for the merits of operating within such a streamlined system; it actually puts me in mind of the old Ghostbusters RPG made by West End Games in the '80s, which brings me to the second, and most important reason for my backing this game:

It looks really, really fun.

Monkeyfun Studios has done a great job articulating the appeal of a high-octane '70s RPG throughout their Kickstarter page, in the rules, and in this promotional video:

The gamemaster (called a DJ) has an agenda that makes the Spirit of 77's priorities crystal clear and tells the DJ what they need to be doing, as well as a set of principles that clarify how they should be doing it.  These principles include things like "Get down with the funk", and "Address yourself to the characters, not the players", as well as "Respond with shenanigans and intermittent rewards".  As words to live by, I've certainly heard worse.

Everything exudes this spirit of playfulness: you don't fight or roll to hit, you "Deliver a Beatdown"; you don't roll a Perception check, you "Scope Out the Scene".  They describe the best approach to playing thusly:
Go Big or Go Home - Some games encourage a subtle touch,
with nuanced levels of intrigue that require careful consideration
and delicate maneuverings…. but we think that’s for sissies. The
Spirit of ‘77 is a game to be played at maximum volume at all
times. When faced with a choice of a behind-the-scenes feint
with slight reward but low risk, versus bold what-the-hell actions
that could fail spectacularly but would be amazing if they work
out… go for the gusto. If you fail, you get XP. If you succeed,
you’re a Big Damn Hero.
And the backstory!  
Richard Nixon has made a deal with aliens, and is still in the White House; renegade rock gods from another galaxy have shared with us the power of Glam; kung-fu bad-asses wander the city streets righting wrongs, and everyone is trying to stick it to The Man.
Spirit of 77 is about recreating all the classic action and adventure TV shows, movies, and comic books of the 1970's. It draws inspiration from movies like Shaft, Smokey and the Bandit, The Warriors, Barbarella, Rocky, and Enter the Dragon; TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files, and Charlies Angels; and music like James Brown, KISS, David Bowie, Jerry Reed, and Issac Hayes. 

And even though Spotify doesn't appear to work in Canada yet, you have to appreciate their making a playlist for their free downloadable adventure "Cruise Ship of the Damned" on their website, featuring artists like Curtis Mayfield and The James Gang.

Monkeyfun have already met all but one of their stretch goals (which I am hoping will mean even more bodacious artwork in the final layout!), so the game seems very likely to be released. Earl went and backed the Kickstarter even before I did, so I am fairly confident this game will get played at least a time or two among our regular gaming comrades. I also received a link to this great 'thank you' video:

If nothing else, now that giant toy companies and publishing enterprises own so many role-playing games and the like, it feels pretty good to promote some independent thinking and audacity in the gaming world. Stick it to the man, indeed!


  1. Damn, those character descriptions made me LLOL when I hit the Baseball Furies.

    Looking forward to playing this.

  2. Awesome review.